I spent the early May bank holiday weekend in Cardiff with some friends enjoying the Rugby Football League organised Millennium Magic event; basically a whole round (six games) of the elite Super League competition held over two days (three games on each day) in the wonderful Millennium Stadium.
The background to this new event is the loss of Rugby League Challenge Cup to the reopening of Wembley Stadium, which means that not only will the economy of Cardiff miss the seventy thousand plus rugby league fans who’ve poured into the city for events in recent years (which is compounded by the loss of several high profile soccer fixtures for the same reason), but those fans will miss what has been an excellent home for a rugby league event. As a result the Cardiff Council and the Welsh Tourist Board combined to offer financial incentives to the RFL to create this event.
The logic behind this is simple, it creates a showcase event mid-season which gives fans something to look forward to and the media something to write about, the game in Wales, particularly in South Wales, has never been stronger and Bridgend based club Celtic Crusaders unofficially kicked-off the weekend with a nail biting game against Oldham at home on Friday night. For the last couple of Challenge Cup’s in Cardiff many thousands of Welsh fans took the opportunity to take in a rugby league game just as many also did on Saturday and Sunday, something that would have been inconceivable not too many years ago.
Needless to say there are critics of the concept both from within and without rugby league circles, rugby league for all its expansionist and progressive efforts (not all of which have been successful) it does contain a famously resilient strain of parochialism amongst some North of England based supporters. The parochial agenda would be far happier if rugby league in Britain went no further than the traditional heartlands of (the historic counties of) Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland. Behind the traditionalist argument there lies a certain insular logic that expansion means competition and competition isn’t necessarily good for individual clubs. However, if rugby league wants to remain a vibrant sport, which it very much is despite unsubstantiated myths to the contrary, it needs to continue to grow and innovate.
It was rugby league’s parochial agenda who expressed the most virulent opposition to this event, although there were a few predictable rants from hardcore rugby union antagonists, the truth is that even in the heart of rugby union territory there were plenty of supporters from the other code enjoying the opportunity of live, top flight rugby league. It is almost a truism to acknowledge that the bulk of Welsh rugby union fans have more in common with traditional rugby league fans than they do with the bulk of English rugby union fans.
Celtic Crusaders appear to be developing as the model of successful expansion; growing out of the amateur rugby league scene in South Wales they have overridden the same sort of parochialism that divides Welsh rugby union as divides rugby league in Northern England. If they continue to develop as they have been they will be a hot favourite to join the elite Super League sometime within the next five years, an achievement that would be a remarkable testament to the creeping expansion of amateur rugby league since rugby union went professional in 1995.
Of course it’s easy to get carried away by Millennium Magic, there are still plenty of tweaks that can be implemented to make it a better experience, but as a new event it’s done well; the RFL was looking for fifty thousand ticket sales over two days and it actually achieved fifty eight thousand, although the figure has sparked a rather bizarre and comedic response from the parochial agenda who have suggested that visitors who bought a ticket for the Saturday games and a ticket for the Sunday games should not have their Sunday tickets counted in the aggregate ticket sales for both days. The national media’s response to the event has also been positive and once we factor in the reality that rugby league does tend to take a while to warm to new events then the future for Millennium Magic is bright, and I for one definitely intend to make a return trip.