Rugby league is very much a global sport, and it can be easy to forget where the game began.
The NRL has a long, proud history of its own, and Australians take great pride in getting behind their well-established clubs from the country’s great towns and cities.
But many rugby league fans – especially the younger generations – often forget that the game’s humble beginnings took root in relatively small cities, towns, and villages in the north of England, back in the late 19th century.
In recent times, the arrival of the internet has reshaped the way people of all social classes and economic backgrounds spend their leisure time, and online cash games, casino offerings, and poker rooms make for popular forms of entertainment.
But in the late 19th century, team sports played a more vital role in the fabric of society, and the establishment of rugby league as a separate game from rugby union occurred due to a division in social classes that still resonates with people in England today.
Rugby in the north of England has been popular amongst working class people since the 1880s, but the Rugby Football Union refused to make allowances for working class players to be paid to play, arguing that this flew in the face of the principles of amateurism.
The result was the creation of the ‘Northern Rugby Football Union’, which reformed rules regarding player payments and also the rules of the game, making progressive changes around the turn of the 20th century that led to the establishment of rugby league as a sport in its own right.
The first clubs
In the early days of the Northern Union, the matches involved teams from suburbs of northern English cities. If you were to visit Batley, Hunslet, Dewsbury, St Helens, Brighouse, or Manningham today, you would find them to be small towns and suburbs that live in the shadows of big cities like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield.
But it was players from these small towns who pioneered the game of rugby league, and the determination of those men to find a way to play the game despite the difficulties they faced regarding financial pressures and a lack of leisure time were not insignificant.
The fight was long and tiresome, with rugby’s governing bodies refusing to acknowledge the need for players to be compensated in order for the game to develop.
Only once professionalism was made permissible did rugby league begin to accelerate in its development, and the struggle of those men at the forefront of the fight for a truly working class strand of rugby should not be forgotten.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com