This was to be the day of all days. The plan was to take in three (THREE!) Rugby League games, fitted around a trip to Oakwell to watch Barnsley v West Ham. Originally on the agenda was the Humberside derby as Hull Kingston Rovers took on their bigger neighbours Hull RLFC at Craven Park. As the ground (recently chosen as one venues for next year’s Rugby League World Cup) was a new one on me I was well up for this. However, at some point between early February when the fixtures came out, and early April when I got round to trying to buy a ticket the game appeared to have been switched to the KC Stadium and my interest waned a little as I have been there a few times already.
Game two became game one and just forty five minutes after leaving the TBIR Northern HQ in Lincoln I was pulling up outside the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster at 3pm. In fact I appeared to be one of the only cars there, and if it wasn’t for the sight of the London Skolars coach I would assume it was wrong place at the wrong time.
Doncaster is a football town. However, the opening of the Keepmoat stadium five years ago has breathed life into the rugby league team and they are now proudly trying to work their way up the Rugby League ladder, playing this season in the National Championship 1. The club have had an emotional life, which has seen numerous name changes, grounds, owners and flirtations with mergers, bankruptcy and the odd promotion. But today it is about steady progress and playing at an excellent venue such as the Keepmoat certainly helps.
The Skolars history by comparison to Doncaster’s has been sedate to say the least. They were formed in 1995 as a club for graduating students who still wanted to play the game. They have made steady progress up the leagues, and whilst they will always live in the shadow of London’s other rugby league side, the Broncos, they continue to play the game in the right spirit.
Unfortunately, the Skolars found Doncaster in a rampant mood. Five tries from Tom Hudson among a total of eleven tries saw Doncaster well out of sight by half time, although the Londoners did score three of their own in a 58-16 win. After a stop at Barnsley for the nPower Championship game with West Ham, it was on to Wakefield for the main attraction of the day.
Back in 1895 the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed with 22 clubs agreeing to form a breakaway league from the Rugby Football Union, unhappy with the Southern bias and lack of progress on issues of professionalism. Included in the original list of clubs was Wakefield Trinity who could trace their roots back to 1873 when they were formed by members of the Holy Trinity Church. In 1879 they moved to a spot of land on the outskirts of the town, which due to its relative rural surroundings was called Belle Vue. Some 123 years later the club, now a member of the 21st century money driven Stobards Super League are still proudly running out at the ground.
However, with more money being poured into the game, the league started to put stricter criteria on the grounds that are used. Some clubs such as Wigan Warriors have benefited from their close association with Wigan Athletic and share the DW Stadium. Others have invested in new purpose built stadiums such as the new St Helens and Salford City Reds Stadium. And then there is Belle Vue.
Back in 1962 the ground was the film set for This Sporting Life, reflecting the life in the town and the place at the heart of the community the Rugby League club played. Since then, very little has been added to the stadium. The club have tried to bring the subject of a new stadium on the local council’s agenda but as of yet nothing has been agreed on.
The Super League is not totally a meritocracy. You have to be given a licence before you can start playing and competing. There is promotion and relegation, but a club can lose its licence if facilities are not up to scratch. And that was the danger that lurked overhead for Wakefield in the last year. With a review of the “franchises” in 2008 the club were able to sigh a huge sigh of relief when they were awarded an extension until 2012. However, in February 2011 the club were forced into administration with debts of over £300,000 but that didn’t seem to matter too much as they were again awarded a licence until 2014 when Widnes Vikings were awarded one at the expense of the Celtic Crusaders.
But here we are today, with the club still fighting for survival both on and off the pitch. It is derby day, and fierce rivals Castleford Tigers had made the short trip to Belle Vue for a Friday night encounter. Coming into the game both teams had won just two of their opening nine (eight in Wakefield’s case) games, and left them at the bottom of the table with Widnes and London Broncos. What better way to end my Good Friday extravaganza than to sample some Yorkshire hospitality, a few Citra Golden Ales, some Parkin and the blood and thunder of a local derby.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 16 Castleford Tigers 34 – Belle Vue – Friday 6th April 2012
The drive from Barnsley took less than 20 minutes. I was guided into Wakefield by the towering floodlights, drawing me in like a moth. As I got almost within touching distance I could hear the crowd being whipped up into a frenzy. Time to park I thought. Sorted, a space in a safe spot and just a short walk from the ground. That was apart from the huge wall in my way. It appeared that despite the ground being so close, it was a fifteen minute trot away, with the rows of terrace housing forming an impregnable barrier to the ground.
Finally I got in the ground, just in time to see Castleford take the lead. Richard Owen scythed through the Wakefield defence in the sixth minute to put the first points on the board. The huge crowd standing behind the goal seemed to rise as one to celebrate and berate – friends standing shoulder to shoulder on the old-fashion stand.
Taking stock of the ground you can see why the club have tried to explore the options to move. One end is taken up by a block of Executive Boxes which looked completely out of place. The old main stand, with its paddock in front was something that hasn’t been seen in football for decades, but to show the difference between the two games, kids were allowed to sit on the pitch-side wall without any fear of over zealous stewards.
The home fans around me were families. Men, women, children, parents and grandparents. They all knew the players, they all shouted and screamed for their community. Unfortunately for the locals after Fox(ie) levelled the try count after twenty minutes, it was the Tigers that were the more rampant in the first half as Castleford scored additional tries through Owen again and then Millington. The performance of the Wildcat Dolls was uplifting for the home fans and temporarily took my mind off the score.
Half time saw various activities on the pitch ranging from the Dolls dancing, giving their all to the delight of the crowd, to a Sumo up and under competition – all good fun and showing that Rugby League is trying to put Customer Experience at the heart of its game.
The second half started much the same as the first with Castleford scoring two quick tries through Ferres and Snitch which effectively ended the contest. The drizzle continued to fall yet not one person left the ground as the blood and thunder of the tackling never let up. Castleford were out of sight by the time that Wood touched down in the final few minutes, meaning the bragging rights would be heading down the M62 for a while.
You cannot ever fail to enjoy a Rugby League game. But add in the spice of a local derby, the magic of the floodlights and the history of a ground like Belle Vue and you can understand why this game is still so important to towns like Wakefield and Castleford.