YYou don’t even have to set foot in Wembley to understand Rugby League’s long and rich history with the National Stadium. A statue immortalizing five of football’s greatest players – Eric Ashton, Billy Boston, Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy and Gus Risman – has pride of place off the pitch, but in an ever-changing sporting landscape, history alone isn’t enough to a long-term future to guarantee.
That has never felt more evident to the game than on Saturday, when the Challenge Cup final at Tottenham found a new setting across the capital. For some traditionalists, moving the cup final away from Wembley is an act of sin, tantamount to turning rugby league away from a history and heritage of which the game is very proud. But when Liam Farrell and Thomas Leuluai lifted the trophy for Wigan, it was hard not to think of a post-Wembley alternative world for rugby league.
After Rugby Football League was forced to make a move for the final this year after a clash with the EFL play-offs, early rumors of Tottenham hosting are promising. The Guardian have been told the Premier League club are working exceptionally well together at all levels in terms of hosting the event and have left the door ajar for a return at some point, despite already confirming that the final is next after Wembley will return year.
But for more reasons than one, Wembley is not the be-all and end-all of rugby league like it was a generation or so ago. The national stadium has only been visited by crowds for a number of years, most recently with over 70,000 spectators in 2016. That was also the last year in which Club Wembley, with a total of around 10,000 seats, was automatically included in the number of visitors, i.e. since its return to Wembley 2007 attendance figures have always been somewhat skewed.
Holding the cup final, the most important day on the calendar, in London has always been a bigger priority for rugby league. The Challenge Cup finals belong in the capital so fans from the north can come out and have a big day every year, no matter who they support. But unlike 20 or 30 years ago, the RFL now have options that are being considered over the long term, as the spectacle at Tottenham on Saturday underscored.
Wembley is far from the only state-of-the-art venue in London capable of hosting a grand final and, given the crowds, a venue like Tottenham is actually better suited. Throw in the Emirates Stadium, which will host a World Cup semi-final this autumn, and you have venues that are not only better suited to a cup final, but arguably more exciting and attractive to visit than Wembley.
The belief that there is life outside of Wembley is reflected in the World Cup calendar again this year. Previously, a home World Cup in England would have been unthinkable without a Wembley game. The 2013 event hosted the semi-final double header there and the 1995 version used old Wembley to host the final, but this year the venue was overlooked. The London option, as mentioned, is Emirates Stadium for the men’s semifinals with the final at Old Trafford.
A crowd of nearly 52,000 on Saturday would have looked sparse even at Wembley, and with a livelihood crisis almost certainly being felt more strongly in the North’s rugby league demographics. With events like Magic Weekend in Newcastle and the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford now a regular fixture on the calendar, filling a venue as large as Wembley isn’t as easy as it used to be.
With all of these financial factors for fans to consider, there’s no shame that rugby league is choosing a stadium that’s slightly smaller than Wembley and aiming to fill it.
A situation where demand exceeds supply could also have a positive knock-on effect, and the fact that tickets to this year’s World Cup are extremely affordable – adults can watch the semi-finals at Emirates Stadium for just £20 – could set the tone for a Specify an adjustment to Challenge Cup prices, with ticket prices for Saturday’s final of up to £70.
It is important to note that nothing will change too much in the short term; The sport has an agreement with Wembley that ensures the final will be played there until at least 2027. But that’s only five years away and occasions like Saturday might only whet the appetite to contemplate a changed future for one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar.
Unlike the old days when Wembley were rugby league’s holy grail, there are factors both inside and outside the game that suggest change is no longer unthinkable.
As the sun sets in new surroundings on a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, it may be time for rugby league to reinvent its relationship with Wembley once and for all.