Even wearing the finest see-no-wrong blinkers it’s hard to say the start of the Super League season has been of the highest quality. There are many reasons for this – most of them hauled over thousands of times in hundreds of places – so let’s just concentrate on how the BBC and rugby league has introduced one of the greatest sporting innovations since Danny Baker’s The Game covered Sunday league football in 1991.
I refer to the live coverage on the BBC website of the early rounds of the Challenge Cup. Now, the Cup has lost much of its lustre – the many reasons for this etc – but a single camera with no replay facility and Dave Woods, the BBC RL correspondent, and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, of the Leeds Rhinos and rugby league’s current go-to enthusiast for everything RL, chatting away while two amateur sides bash seven shades out of each other and display a level of skill not always seen at elite levels is an utter joy. The Featherstone Lions v Thatto Heath third-round tie two weeks ago was, by far, more entertaining than the four professional games available to watch on TV and was certainly the most heart-warming.
There’s not just endeavour and skill to enjoy. The first round included Buster the bulldog being escorted away from the tryline during Rochdale Mayfield v Crosfields – allowing Woods to invoke the famous Ray French lament: “Every time we come to Headingley there is a dog on the pitch. Why, oh, why people bring dogs to rugby games, I’ll never know” – while last year’s Stalybridge v Haydock tie was rendered all the more memorable by the frequent use of a chamois leather to clear rain off the camera lens.
Now the viewing figures are unlikely to attract blue chip companies – who have mostly abandoned the sport (the reasons for which etc) – but Toronto’s first-ever game last year had a total audience – website and iPlayer – of more than 90,000. That doesn’t seem much in the grand scheme of things but it’s vastly superior to most games during the NFL regular season on Sky.
It’s entirely fair to point out that it is just preaching to the converted and it is equally hard to deny that charge when lots of the tweets Woods reads out – this being a rare case of proper audience participation – often refer back to the good old days of black-and-white era Grandstand, Eddie Waring, the gloriously overweight prop and muddy pitches. But it’s more, much more, than discovering a picture of an old flame from school, it’s part, for good or ill of what makes rugby league; the honesty, the feeling of being part of something special, the utter romance and superiority of being Northern.
Last year’s coverage won a Royal Television Society award and the latest instalment features Distington (west Cumbria since you ask) visiting Coventry Bears on Sunday. It’s a long way from the final at Wembley and all the better for it.