Rugby International 

2 January 2002

The “merger” between British Satellite Broadcasting and Sky Television gave Sky its first access to rugby league, with the premier club competitions in both Britain and Australia covered by the newly re-branded Sky Sports.

And it was Australia that held the key to the biggest development in the sport since it had first broken away from the Rugby Football Union back in 1895.

Whilst Britain had struggled to expand beyond its heartland of the north of England, the 1980s and nineties saw Australia add several teams outside its traditional Sydney base.

Starting with the Canberra Raiders in 1982, by 1995 the former Sydney Premiership had added clubs in Queensland, Perth and even as far away as New Zealand.

Sky’s success in covering the FA Premier League from its inception in 1992 had demonstrated the importance in owning broadcasting rights to sport.

Other parts of the Murdoch Empire were quick to react and, by the end of the decade, the Fox network in the US had acquired rights to the NFL and Major League Baseball. The lack of any real competition on the pay TV front in the UK meant that Sky had quickly added rugby union, cricket and golf to its portfolio.

In Australia, rugby league was a far more important sport than it was in the UK. But to Murdoch, there were several problems. The sport’s expansion meant that there were now twenty clubs lumped together in a single division, which was too many, even if the end of season play-offs had been expanded as a result.

Furthermore, too many of these clubs were in Sydney, while cities such as Adelaide and Melbourne weren’t represented at all. But there was an even bigger problem – Murdoch’s rival, Kerry Packer, held the broadcast rights.

With no one prepared to sell the rights, Murdoch had to create his own competition, effectively taking a leaf out of Packer’s book.

But while Packer had been able to establish his cricket circus by signing up a relatively small number of players, a rugby league competition would require whole teams to be signed up.

The Australian Rugby League stood firm, so News Corp turned its attention to the Northern Hemisphere.

Since rugby league was played in a small number of countries, peeling off one or two of the major ones would almost certainly force the rest to fall into line.

Details of News’ British aspirations first broke in early April, and on 8 April 1995 controversial plans for the future of the sport were voted through, although the following day the chief executive of Leeds would accuse the RFL of “holding a gun to the heads of clubs” who were told “vote in favour or you are out.” Leeds (who had held out against the sport’s move to playing on Sunday until the early 1980s) were against the proposed move to a summer season which would see a truncated 1995-96 season before the so-called Super League kicked off in March 1996.

This in itself was hardly a new idea as the legendary Lance Todd had advocated a March to November season back in the 1930s.

But it was what the RFL was prepared to do in order to get its hands on the £77 million that News Corp was stumping up in exchange for a five-year deal that caused outrage in many quarters.

This wasn’t just another TV deal, but what the Parliamentary Rugby League group called the sale of the sport “lock, stock and barrel to a private media interest.”

In place of the current 16 club First Division there would be a new 14 strong Super League, but only five existing top-flight clubs – Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, St. Helens and Wigan – would be involved.

Second Division London Broncos would be promoted on the basis of geography while there would be new teams based in Paris and Toulouse.

But the real controversy surrounded the proposal to throw away a century of tradition and merge fifteen existing clubs into six, representing Calder, Cheshire, Cumbria, Humberside, Manchester and South Yorkshire.

Perhaps the real problem with this was that the sport attempted both a radical restructuring whilst simultaneously trying to keep hold of its traditions.

The idea that fans of Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers would put aside decades of rivalry to support Humberside was almost unthinkable, yet the RFL somehow expected this to happen.

And while promotion and relegation would be suspended for the first two seasons, it seems unlikely that any of the newly merged teams, let alone the two proposed ones in France, would be prepared to drop down to the new First Division anyway.

Yet without the prospect of promotion, what incentive would the rest of the League have?

One solution would have been to retain the existing structure and competitions, while having a Super League operating above this.

The likes of Wigan and St. Helens could have entered this on their own, while Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield could have fielded composite teams whilst still retaining their own individual identities in the existing competitions.

With rugby union about to recognise professionalism, a relatively short summer league culminating in a series of play-offs could have enabled top players from both codes to play the 13-a-side game, avoided the league seeing an exodus of talent to the rival code and provided a basis for expanding the sport beyond the north of England.

Instead, the plans were doomed to failure. Fans protested at grounds, the Australian RL accused RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay of betrayal and the “Murdoch empire of attempting to destroy a great English tradition”.

The Labour Party wanted to refer the deal to the OFT and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Even the Centenary World Cup planned for the autumn of 1995 was in jeopardy, with Lindsay forced to make a hastily-arranged trip to Australia to save the competition, while the RFL and the ARL headed towards a costly talent war as both sides seemed set to use their backers’ TV cash to sign up top players.

In the face of this criticism, the RFL made a quick U-turn and, by the end of April, the merger proposals were thrown out. In their place came a new three division structure based on club’s final 1994-95 league positions, although London and Paris would still feature in the Super League and a new Welsh team would be admitted to the First Division, while Chorley, who had been demoted back in the last League reorganisation in 1993 would be readmitted.

Despite objections from Keighley and Widnes over their exclusion from the Super League, this revised structure was adopted for the 1995-96 season, which would be played from August to January with a break in October for the World Cup.

Although the Paris club weren’t yet in operation, there were the first signs that some clubs were prepared to adapt to the new order when Bradford ditched the suffix Northern and adopted the nickname Bulls.

The next couple of years would see almost every club follow suit. Some, such as Castleford merely formalised their existing nickname, while others dropped their traditional nicknames in favour of something much more “marketable”.

So Widnes stopped being the Chemics and being the Vikings; neighbours Warrington were now longer the Wire but the Wolves; the Red Devils of Salford (which pre-dated Manchester United’s adoption of the term and stemmed from a 1930s tour of France where they were dubbed Les Diables Rouges) were now simply the Reds, while the trend reached its nadir when someone at Halifax had the bright idea of dubbing the club the Blue Sox.

Whilst all of this was taking place in the Northern Hemisphere, Down Under open warfare had broken out with the Packer and Murdoch camps each planning to run their own league in 1996, with the ARL pledging not to select defecting players for its World Cup squad even though this weakened their chances of winning the cup for the eighth time.

A record 10 countries entered this tournament, the eleventh to be held since the first competition in France in 1954.

The number of entrants required a rather contrived format, which saw the teams divided into three groups – one of four countries and two of three – and meant that England and Australia featured in both the opening match (which England won) and the final (which England lost). But this would have been lost on most of the UK as the RFL had bizarrely sold the live rights to most games to the cable-only channel L!ve TV, which almost no-one could receive and most of those who could didn’t watch anyway, with only the two England-Australia clashes and a couple of other matches shown live on terrestrial TV.

With the World Cup over, attention returned to the club game as the sport completed its final winter season.

Although the Challenge Cup would still finish at the end of April, from now on, rugby league was a summer sport as far as the UK was concerned.

But had a new era really dawned for the sport?

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