Denver Test: Success or Failure?
Rugby League fans, both in England and overseas, will have watched, or at the very least heard about, the revolutionary International test match between England and New Zealand that was played on the 23rd of June.
One thing that is perfectly evident since the match took place is that it got people talking. Thousands took to social media to voice their opinions on the concept, many supporting the event – while others failed to be impressed. It may not have been perfect and yes it had many areas that should be vastly improved if it was to happen again, but ultimately I believe it needs to be more deeply analysed point by point – rather than being too viciously or swiftly judged. So here are my key points concerning the Denver International Test Match
This is a massive vocal point for all those debating. The Location. Why Denver? Why America in the first place? Well, I think it goes without saying that yes, hosting this game in Denver was a massive risk. The question as to whether the locals would even take to the game of Rugby League was still unanswered.
I believe that the American market that our game has decided to target – is the right one. The reason is simple – the Americans love their sports! From little league to college divisions, the emphasis they put on sporting culture is rarely seen anywhere else. I’m not talking about just doing PE or Athletics, more like ESPN televised college football games – with thousands of young players hoping to play in the NFL. Reality is however, not all of them do. Now, forgive me for pointing out the obvious but the physical attributes of these American football players wouldn’t go amiss in a game of Rugby League. Lets just say it is no accident that the Denver game was advertised locally as “Football without pads”. The potential player pool would be large and can only add to the quality athletes flying the Rugby League flag.
Adding to that, the exciting product we have with our great game fits the bill in terms of excitement. Big hits – long range efforts – blood, sweat and tears. All the ingredients to excite, and we know this already – we just need to sell it correctly and to the correct market. Which leads me to the next reason America/Denver is a great location for the Rugby League expansion. In Denver their are a couple of well supported sports teams. Two of the largest are the Denver Broncos NFL team and the Colorado Avalanche NHL team. It is important to note these teams due to the fact that both of these clubs are in their respective off-seasons during the Denver international test match – meaning there is a potential pool of sport loving spectators who are hungry for their sporting fix.
A very big question: Was it well attended? The official attendance for the event was 19,320. As a number alone, it is hard to understand how anyone can knock the figure! How a game that is completely new to Americans can reach numbers that many Super League Clubs fail to reach, as well as being roughly half the attendance that was present for the World Cup Final in Australia (a final that the hosts were actually playing in by the way), is fantastic!
However, one critique i have seen regarding the attendance is the fact it looked unpleasing to the eye for television viewers, due to the stadium holding 80 thousand – and because of this many suggested it should have been played in the local ‘Soccer’ stadium that is smaller. Firstly, I believe it looked no different to how the crowds look throughout the majority of Magic Weekend fixtures on television and honestly, the game on the field should be what matters. Just look at many NRL games that are televised, large intentional hosting stadiums are often near empty or half full – which doesn’t mean no one went to the game and certainly doesn’t take away from the product on the field. As for the ‘it should have been somewhere smaller’ opinions – I disagree! Mostly, because the smaller option of the Soccer stadium wouldn’t have been big enough, as it only holds 18 thousand! Overall, just shy of 20 thousand for a groundbreaking concept in an alien environment, is superb. It honestly should be capitalised on and the main target should be to repeat this event and beat the number.
How about we talk about the actual game? I believe it was fantastic, especially for new time viewers. It had big hits, bruising carriesp, awesome offloads, full length trys – the lot! On a personal note it was great England win that cements the quality they displayed in the World Cup and highlights that the old two-way monopoly of international Rugby League by Australia and New Zealand is certainly over – something that is quite fitting considering the expansive optimism this test displays.
There were some however who before the game was played, questioned aspects concerning ‘player well-being’. These questions surprisingly came from clubs in the NRL – many citing the mixture of heat and altitude as a cause for concern. I believe such a viewpoint is incredibly hypocritical coming from the people who allow theirs players to have 48 hour turnarounds in order to play high intensity State of Origin games.
These concerns were quickly dismissed by the head doctor of England Rugby League and other professionals. For me though, the fact 3 other major sports teams are based there prove it is fit to host such physicality. Yes, Rugby League is much more demanding but our athletes are fit enough to play it – which was displayed when the sides met in front of the American crowd.
As for those who are very club orientated and wish this fixture didn’t take away their best players, I get it. Club allegiances are hard to shake but for the good of the sport as a whole – fixtures like this only increase the value of the sport. Just look at State of Origin in Australia and its success, could this be ‘our origin’?
It is also important to play as many international fixtures throughout the year as we can. I often hear people say international games ‘mean nothing’…well let’s make them mean something! The more we play them the more legitimacy these games will hold. I honestly believe the success of Rugby League in the future is in the global game – you only need to look at the other code of rugby to see how popular the international scene is. Arguably that is the main avenue for that sport and Rugby League should take a page out of their book in that respect. More Internationals, more countries, more exposure, more spectators.
Now that you’ve been subjected to my thoughts on this intriguing international concept, I feel it’s a fitting time to explore the ideas of others – well at least those who use Twitter!
Tristan Fillmore (@trifillmore) was actually one of the lucky individuals to actually attend the game. He believed it was a “great sporting spectacle” in which two teams were “well matched and gave their all on the pitch”. He also thought that the venue, the Mile High Stadium, was brilliant in turning it “into an event” – with activities such as skydiving and half time acrobatics entertaining the new to Rugby League crowd before an after the match. In his opinion however, one downside was the lack of rule clarification – stating that while rules were indeed displayed on TVs before the game, there was little time to study them. These issues seemingly feel like teething problems, that with a little fix would perfect the already entertaining spectacle.
Twitter user @cbd10sts is enthusiastic about playing international Rugby league games abroad – in the likes of maybe New York next time – but is concerned that the game in our own country needs to remain a priority.
Ben Yoxall (@theyox14) agrees with the thoughts of England head coach Wayne Bennett – who suggests the sport needs more events like the Denver test in the long run in order to survive. Ben also believes that the RFL’s lack of building on success needs to change and that it is vital we do elevate this occasion next year with the aim to better the attendance figure.
Sam Walker (@sam_walker75) believed the test was a resounding success, as the result showed Super League can very well compete with the NRL. He also thinks that the successful local turnout to the game highlights the sports ability to be a success outside of Australia, England, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
In sport there is a saying, if you stand still you are only going backwards and in my opinion this couldn’t be more relevant for Rugby League. Our sport needing to expand is something we should all agree on. Which is all the more puzzling when certain powers down under seem solely fixed on domestic protection – even if that’s at the detriment to the global sport. I believe this viewpoint is insular and needs revising. More countries playing Rugby League means; more players, more leagues, more games, more fans, more money, more exposure, more tournaments, more to play for…more excitement!
I think it’s obvious to see what my view is on the historic concept, but believe me when I admit – It is far from perfect. But does that mean we should scrap it immediately? For me, no.
Yes it can be better and I realise it also needs to be. But from the simple stadium day aesthetics, all the way to the long term serious logistics – there is room for vast improvement. My only hope now is that the powers that be reflect and build upon this fixture, rather than abandon it. Consistency is key and with it, the game of Rugby League might just grow to heights previously unimaginable.