Only a few days to go until your rugby league famine is over. All eight of this weekend’s NRL games will be broadcast live in the UK. And, if that does not take your fancy, Sky are showing a re-run of Great Britain’s win over Australia from 2006 on Friday night as well as six Summer Bash classics over the weekend. It’s a far cry from the days when the only live rugby league on British TV was the odd second half on Grandstand.
Having shown league matches on their flagship sports show since the late 1950s, the BBC decided to drop championship rugby league in 1980, opening the way for ITV. The inspirationally titled “Rugby League” began in March 1981 in the last slot before midnight on Mondays, with a jazz funk theme tune and Bob Hall presenting in front of a green screen backdrop in a Leeds studio.
The show was only broadcast in ITV’s northern regions and was not even on every week. With the BBC only showing the occasional live cup tie, weeks or even months would pass without any rugby league on British TV at all. Things improved in 1981, when ITV’s show returned under a new name – RL Action – and with a new face: a smooth young presenter from Essex called Richard Madeley.
“My only knowledge of rugby was from playing rugby union for my grammar school in London,” says Madeley. “So I had to mug up on league pretty quickly. I felt a bit of a fraud, if I’m honest. There were plenty of sports presenters who knew far more about the game than me. But I gave it my best shot and quickly got into the game.”
Madeley held the reins as Leigh – who had finished ninth the previous season – put together an astonishing run to win the title on the final day of the 1981-82 season. ITV cameras captured Alex Murphy’s side winning 19-18 at Leeds on the penultimate weekend, but they were not at Whitehaven three days later to show Leigh clinch the title. Only the 4,000 Leigh fans who trekked up to the Recreation Ground saw their extraordinary triumph.
The coverage was not exactly blanket either. When Fulham pulled off an unlikely draw at Leeds in their first season in the top flight, none of their southern fans could watch it as ITV only broadcast it in the north of England. Londoners were left in the company of sagacious medical examiner Quincy instead.
If you turned on ITV in the north of England in the 1980s there was a good chance Madeley’s effervescent face would pop up. “I think I was asked to host RL Action because I had become a familiar face by then,” says Madeley. “By the time RL Action launched I was in Manchester doing Granada Reports with Tony Wilson and … Judy Finnigan!” She was assigned to assist Madeley on his first day at Granada. Within four years, they would be married. The nation’s most famous TV couple was born.
Like the BBC with Clare Balding in the 2000s, producers clearly trusted Madeley even though he was an outsider to the game. When Hull beat Barrow to win the championship (and relegate the Shipbuilders) in April 1983, he sat in the Boulevard dugout and tossed gentle enquiries at Hull coach Arthur Bunting after each try.
Madeley worked alongside commentator Keith Macklin at the time. “I genuinely enjoyed watching Keith’s highlight packages and discussing them,” says Madeley. “As I remember the show went out live but I don’t recall any cock-ups – it was pretty straightforward to front.”
Madeley moved on in 1984. “I had to stop doing it because they moved it to Friday nights, a couple of hours after the main game had finished,” he says. “That meant driving across the Pennines and back on programme nights. That could be a problem in winter. Several times I was unable to get back to Manchester for Granada Reports and nearly didn’t make it to Leeds in time to front RL Action a couple of times because of heavy snow. In the end, I handed the baton to Elton Welsby.”
Moving fixtures from Sundays to Friday nights had clubs up in arms at the the time, but it established what has become a traditional night for rugby league on British TV. Castleford and Oldham even erected new floodlights to ensure they could host the RL Action crew.
But the programme did not stick around for long. Just as football disappeared from British TV in the mid-1980s, there was no championship rugby league on either – for two whole seasons. Incredibly, there was no TV coverage of Halifax winning the league as underdogs in 1986, or Wigan beginning their dynasty by romping to the title the following season.
ITV relaunched their rugby league coverage in 1987 with a Match of the Day-style programme called Scrumdown. The RFL had plans to broadcast the show in the US, Italy and Spain, but in the end it only went out in the north of England and Scotland. The good folk of Aberdeen could watch Martin Offiah help Widnes wrap up the title by destroying relegated Hunslet in front of thousands of ecstatic travelling fans at Elland Road – and the surreal sight of the match referee serenading the celebrating (mainly naked) Widnes players in their dressing room with his guitar over the closing titles. It is worth searching for online.
ITV’s coverage of rugby league has been a training ground for a string of successful broadcasters: not just Madeley and Welsby but also their successors Nick Powell and Clive Tyldesley. Despite winning a Royal Television Society award, Scrumdown’s seemingly random scheduling was fatal. A lot of regions across the UK preferred to show Prisoner Cell Block H.
ITV stopped screening rugby league in 1992 when something called The Sports Channel secured exclusive rights to the championship. They changed their name to Sky Sports and televised sport would never be the same again.
The probability that Catalans Dragons will have to base themselves in England to compete in Super League later this summer reminded me of the story of Jim Fiddler. A Challenge Cup winner with Leigh, Fiddler spent 1974-75 in the French top flight with Limoux … while still living in Lancashire. The goalkicking prop would fly down to southern France every weekend, never missing a game, and would be at work in a Lancashire colliery on Monday. Now that is commitment. Unsurprisingly, the Limouxin loved him, referring to that campaign as “la saison Fiddler”.
Clubcall: Warrington Wolves
No sooner had the Challenge Cup final been postponed and Super League clubs began arguing over next year’s salary cap, PR masters Warrington replaced the gloom with glee: GI is coming to town! The signing of Australian legend Greg Inglis, who retired in 2018 and will be 34 in January, raised eyebrows. Among the reasons: Warrington’s wage bill is believed to be at cap already. They have their two marquee players in Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop, not to mention half a team of England internationals. It seems unlikely they will all still be there by the time Inglis, the troubled “Iguana”, makes his debut.
The return of the NRL will give us a sneak preview of how Super League may look in mid-August: played behind closed doors at a limited number of bio-secured stadiums. Five NRL clubs (Brisbane, North Queensland, Melbourne, Parramatta and Wests) have the advantage of playing at home, and Manly should be comfortable on the Central Coast.
In contrast, the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs will share the Eels’ new stadium for the next eight weeks at least – as will the Roosters and Sharks, who were not going to play at home this season anyway due to ground redevelopments.
But spare a thought for the Warriors. Having moved lock, stock and barrel from Auckland to New South Wales’ Central Coast, they are the only NRL club without a single home game scheduled.
Fifth and last
Feel free to raise a glass of prosecco on Tuesday. It will be 70 years since rugby league was first played in Italy. On 2 June 1950, around 4,000 fans watched two French teams play in Turin and three weeks later Torino XIII were formed by a rebellious group of players from the Reale Ginnastica di Torino rugby union club. They toured England and Wales as “Italy” that summer and the sport soon boomed. At its height in the 1950s, there were 30 teams all over the north of Italy and as far south as Florence. Last year, there was no domestic competition in Italy, however, there are hopes for yet another revival. Buon settantesimo compleanno!