Talking RL: ‘Why playing a Test in Denver is a great idea’

Wayne Bennett taking charge in Denver
Wayne Bennett taking charge in Denver
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When Denver Broncos cheerleaders are fronting promos and describing rugby league players as “crazy”, you know this England-New Zealand game is like no other.

Saturday’s mid-season Test is, of course, taking place in Denver, USA - a bold move by any measure.

A constant criticism I have had of rugby league has been it hasn’t pushed the envelope enough, so I have to welcome this decision.

Do I think that, by Sunday, loads of Americans will be league fans? No. Of course not.

Just like there aren’t middle-aged men in Millwaukee walking around in shirts with ‘Hanley’ and ‘Boyd’ on their back, following the ‘89 clash between Wigan and Warrington.

But it’s a start.

And if you had told me five years ago that Toronto would be well-funded, well-supported and on the brink of a Super League place, I would have laughed.

With a rugby league World Cup being staged in America in 2025, surely it makes sense to lay down some foundations.

If nothing else, to learn lessons – about their media, their fans, their reaction – and identify both possibilities and any teething problems.

This Denver Test gives players life experiences – something which shouldn’t be understated, given the travel attractions of union.

It also sends a message to people (and companies) here, and elsewhere, that rugby league can do what other sports do. A more ambitious message than had this mid-season game been staged in Leigh or Campbelltown.

If this match leads to wider exposure and opens up more revenue streams, great.

If it gets the bumper 20,000-plus crowd some are predicting, fantastic.

And thankfully fans here can see it on the BBC (which reminds me: did the RFL ever reveal how much streaming last year’s Test made?).

It has certainly given this fixture a quirkiness which has made people talk about it.

And I’m told, because of the money offered by the promotor, it will be profitable regardless.

‘Why do it?’ some will ask. Why the hell not!

I hope it’s a huge success.

In these notes last week, I predicted new Super League chief executive Robert Elstone would get an inkling about the challenges he faces at that evening’s Salford-Widnes match.

And I was right. It was a tough watch in front of a small crowd.

But if that showed him some of the difficulties, what followed revealed some of the possibilities. One score settled the remaining five matches, there were some entertaining games and some eye-catching highlights - even Wigan’s barmy winner may have been pipped by Hull KR scoring EIGHT SECONDS into the restart after half-time.

Off-field issues can be boring, but this is a crucial time for the sport.

If Elstone can get Super League buzzing again in the next two years, it will put the competition in a good bargaining position to negotiate its next TV deal – the lifeblood of the professional game.

And, finally, as some wonder who will win the power-struggle between the Super League clubs and the lower league outfits about the competition format will be like next year (remember, Batley threatened ‘war looms’), Elstone’s interview with the BBC was interesting.

“We will not play 2019 with that structure,” he said, referring to the Super-8s.
“Nobody should be in any doubt Super League clubs don’t want it, and clubs ultimately – maybe this is controversial – are the major stakeholders in the game and creators of value.

“Super League clubs won’t go into a competition next year that means on the starting line, six or seven are concerned about the middle-8s. It puts too much volatility and uncertainty into any business. They won’t accept that.”

Is it fair Wigan will be without their England players tomorrow night?

Yes! This was an international weekend – kept free of Super League fixtures for that reason.

Wigan and Cas are only playing because weather postponed the original fixture. They didn’t have to pick this weekend.

Now, if you really want a moan about the fixtures, how about the decision to have Wigan face Leeds next Thursday.

Not only will the returning England players be under-done (for both sides), but it is on at the same time as England’s World Cup glamour tie with Belgium.

This week Wigan have lost Sean O’Loughlin and John Bateman to England, George Williams to injury, and media manager Tim Fisher to a job elsewhere.

Tim, obviously, is not as widely know as the other three but Warriors fans have unknowingly reaped the rewards of his work over the years.

You may hear journalists moan about poor PR and limited player-access at other clubs - but not at Wigan.

He is a very good operator and an all-round good fella.

I wish him all the best for the future.