The Origins of Rugby League
The roots of rugby league can be traced back to a meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895. It was here that a group of Northern clubs decided to break away from the Rugby Football Union and form the Northern Rugby Football Union.
The cause of the breakaway was “broken time payments” although it was as much about powerful clubs wanting more of a say in how the game was run.
Unlike the professional classes, men who worked in the factories and mills had to take time off work if they wanted to play rugby and as such would be out of pocket. The northern clubs wanted to make up the lost wages of their players. However, the London-based RFU saw this as professionalism. They believed in the amateur ethos and so they opposed it.
Twenty one clubs met at the George Hotel on 29th August, they were Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan.
All but Dewsbury, whose committee hadn’t had time to mandate their representative, resigned from the Rugby Football Union and the Northern Rugby Football Union was born. Two other clubs, Stockport and Runcorn subsequently joined.
Within three years the Northern Union agreed to legalise professionalism, although the players still had to have bone fide jobs. They realised that in order to attract good crowds, they needed to make the game more spectator friendly.
Gradually the points system was changed, line outs were abolished, rucks and mauls were replaced by a play-the-ball system and they dispensed with flankers, bringing the number of players down from 15 to 13. In 1922, the Northern Union was renamed the Rugby Football League.
Rugby League In London
Rugby League in the capital has had a long and chequered history. Moving the Challenge Cup final to Wembley in 1929 was a huge gamble which paid off.
In 1932 Leeds played Wigan in an exhibition match at the White City Stadium in west London under floodlights. The stadium authorities were impressed enough to take over the Wigan Highfield club and relocate it to their stadium.
They played a season as London Highfield and home games were on Wednesday nights under floodlights. Although they finished mid-table with crowds of 5 – 7,000 they lost money through having to pay visiting clubs’ traveling expenses and the venture failed.
However, another sports promoter, Sydney Parkes, formed two teams, Acton & Willesden and Streatham & Mitcham, to play at his dog tracks. However within two years both had folded and that appeared to be that, but in June 1980 Ernie Clay, chairman of Fulham Football Club, announced the formation of a Rugby League team to play at Craven Cottage.
The new club was accepted into the Second Division although almost all the players were northerners who only came down to London at weekends to play the games. The opening match at Craven Cottage in September 1980 attracted nearly 10,000 fans who saw the team beat newly relegated Wigan, 24-5.
That first season they beat Leeds in the John Player trophy in front of 12,583 spectators. A crowd of 15,013 turned up to see Fulham play Wakefield Trinity in the Challenge Cup, which is still the biggest crowd for the London club match. Fulham won promotion in that first season but struggled with their small squad at the higher level and were relegated.
At the end of the fourth season continuing financial losses saw the plug pulled at Craven Cottage and although the club survived, they led a nomadic existence playing at many grounds in the capital including Crystal Palace, Chiswick Polytechnic and Barnet Copthall.
In 1991 the name was changed to the London Crusaders and during a period of improving fortunes they made the 1994 Divisional Premiership Final at Old Trafford. A new dawn arrived when the Brisbane Broncos bought the club and changed the name to the London Broncos.
With the advent of Super League in 1996, the Broncos moved to southeast London to play at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, which is when Swinton-born David Hughes became involved with the club. But after one season they were on their way back to west London to play at the Stoop Memorial Ground.
The Virgin Group then became the majority shareholder and in 1999, they reached the Challenge Cup Final, losing to Leeds Rhinos in what proved to be the last Rugby League game ever to be played at the old Wembley Stadium.
When Virgin pulled out three years later David Hughes took over and the club moved to Griffin Park, home of Brentford FC.
In 2005 under new chairman Ian Lenagan they re-located to The Twickenham Stoop and became Harlequins RL. Lenagan subsequently look over his hometown club Wigan and David Hughes eventually became the majority shareholder. At the end of the 2011 Super League season they re-branded as London Broncos.
Away from the elite level, Rugby League has made enormous strides in London and the South East. A summer Conference competition was launched in the late 1990s which spread the game to all parts of the country.
The London Skolars, founded in 1995 and based in North London, became one of the founding members of the Conference in 1997, the forerunner to the Summer Conference. In 2003 they became the first club in 80 years to make the jump from the amateur ranks to the professional leagues and currently play in Co-Operative Championship 1.
At junior level in London and the South East the number of players has almost doubled over the last three years from 850 to 1,500. There are almost 300 school teams including 60 girls’ sides.
In 2008 only two colleges played Rugby League in London, now its 27 and there are eight university teams. There are 32 senior teams with more sides than ever playing regular games in the Rugby League Conference.
In 2008 Harlequins had three London-developed players in their squad, now they have 14; Skolars had 15 and currently have 22. There are also a number of southern bred players now plying their trade with heartland clubs.
In a new initiative, London Rugby League is to launch a project to target the East End of London. Funding totaling £250,000 has been secured from a number of partners including Hard Rock Cafe and the London Mayor’s Participation Fund.
Called The Hard Rock Cafe East London Rugby League Project, after its principle sponsor, it will be a key part of London RL’s strategy to grow grass roots participation in that part of the capital
The aim is to get 12-25 year olds in East London active through Rugby League. Four out of the target boroughs Hackney, Newham, Greenwich and Barking & Dagenham, will be hosting Olympic events.
New clubs will be created where no playing opportunities currently exist. The project will also see the establishment of new “Street Rugby” clubs, which will play a version of Rugby League.