Lenagan: The international club game is vital

Ian Lenagan
Ian Lenagan

Wigan Warriors’ announcement they are heading to Australia in 2018 has ignited debate between rugby league fans everywhere.

But this isn’t just a jaunt Down Under, nor is it to play a World Club Challenge like in previous visits in 1994 and 2014.

In a rugby league first, Wigan will be playing against fellow Super League side Hull FC for competition points at Wollongong’s WIN Stadium on February 10, 2018.

The nine-day tour will include a friendly against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium in Sydney – a double header which will also see Hull face St George Illawarra on February 17.

Twelve months in the making, Warriors commercial manager Dan Burton and rugby director Kris Radlinski have been working to organise the tour, which sees Destination New South Wales and Destination Wollongong sponsor the partnership between New South Wales and Wigan.

Here, Wigan Today’s Tom McCooey speaks to Ian Lenagan to discover the chairman’s hopes for the trip.

Why are Wigan taking a competitive Super League game to Australia?

IL: We’ve always believed two things are very important. The Wigan brand and extending the value of the Wigan brand both in the UK, in Europe and Australasia particularly.

We feel the importance of the international club game is vital to rugby league generally.

We’re never going to beat rugby union with their Lions Tours and Twickenham and international matches of the scale they can mount, but we have a far better game which is far better supported at club level. Just as club football is becoming more important than international football, you see that with the tours that Man City, Man United and everyone else is doing at the moment, we feel that the international club game in rugby league should have a much-higher profile than it has.

We’ve done two things so far in that extent.

Our game in 2014 when we played the Roosters in Sydney and we got 35,000 fans was a smack in the face for people who thought that international club rugby, particularly between Super League and NRL, was not attractive. It is attractive.

A second thing we did was beating Cronulla Sharks, who are extremely well thought of, last February. Those are the background reasons.

We’ve always been interested in playing in Australia as well as playing in Wigan. We don’t want to do one for the removal of the other, so for example this February we were delighted to play Cronulla at the DW Stadium and get a big audience, a big television audience, and promote it well. But we are always keen to play in Australia.

The difficulty is if you only qualify for the World Club Challenge at the end of the season then the chances of organising something for February is very low. We decided to take the matters in our own hands and Wigan have organised this whole event, the project.

We’ve been trying to do it for 12 months now and we’ve been working with the NSW tourist authority and the NWS Government, particularly with Wollongong region, which is part of NSW, because it takes a long time to set up something of this magnitude.

The magnitude is caused by the fact we’ve got the first Super League game in the southern hemisphere with us against Hull, and then number two this massive game at ANZ Stadium, we will be playing there.

It’s a double-header, Wigan against Souths and Hull v St George, and we think that will draw a big crowd.

Souths v St George gets 20-25,000 anyway, and we think we’ll probably double that with having it as a double header with the two English teams.

We’ve seen Warriors move games before – Wigan played Catalans at Millwall in 2015 – so what were the benefits of that and what benefits do you see from the 2018 trip?

IL: We have a whole clutch of sponsors who are nationwide sponsors, not just north of England sponsors, who are being signed up and are already lining up with us because of the fact that Wigan had the temerity to take a game to London.

And then on taking a game to Australia – as a direct consequence of that, we’ve got some of the additional sponsors we will announce in the next month.

Who has been responsible for organising the tour?

IL: We’re very fortunate with what we have in Dan Burton, our commercial sales manager and ex-New Zealand Warriors member of staff.

He’s been with us now for 18 months and has put a lot of effort in with Kris Radlinski to put this together. This is a joint partnership between Wigan and strategic sponsors of the visit, Destination NSW and Destination Wollongong.

Will facing Hull at Wembley boost the profile of the tour?

IL: If you look at the perfect setting, it was the reason Wigan and Hull wanted to be at Wembley.

That was just too good to be true as a precursor to the main event.

To see Wigan and Hull in the Challenge Cup final six months before was the best marketing we could possibly do. That was the added bonus from us.

Getting to Wembley is important to Wigan’s profile because we like to be in at least one final a year. This means we’re in one already and we are still aiming for the Grand Final.

This is my 10th year at Wigan and to be leading the team out in my 10th year is quite special for me, because Wembley to a Wiganer is always very special, and it is to me. It’s a great precursor to the main event.

Why choose your match against Hull to take to Australia?

IL: It was three reasons. Not least because Hull are well known from the days when Peter Sterling played for them back in the 1980s, and when Wigan and Brett Kenny and John Ferguson played against Sterling and James Leuluai. And that’s a good quartet of big names. Two of whom at least in Sterling and Kenny still have a very high profile over there.

Hull fits in the respect that it has a good brand name and is well known in Australia.

In addition, the Hull owner Adam Pearson is very forward thinking.

On top of that, Hull is a big and well-supported city.

Could this be the start of taking more games across the globe for the sport?

IL: I think it could easily be the start of that.

In reality we have to explore the international club game a lot more. I think Wigan and Warrington winning in February this year and this game and all the commercial razzmatazz that it’s got – it has got massive publicity in Australia – people are all saying why haven’t the NRL been looking at this as an idea?

What about supporters packages?

IL: They’ll be announced in August. A lot of fans are already looking themselves. We’re expecting to take a lot of fans over there.

We’ll be doing ordinary fans packages, VIP fans packages. You’ll get plenty of opportunity to join in the things that Wigan and Hull will do while we’re over there. It’ll be a great event.

The opportunity to go there at just the right time when it’s nice and hot over there and to be at the Olympic Stadium, and Wollongong, which is a very attractive stadium as well.

I think it will be an immense trip.

I’m also convinced the 2021 World Cup will be fundamental part of the follow-up.