To Absent Neighbours…

It’s no exaggeration to say that there was a point in my life where nearly everything I knew about Australia, I’d learned from Neighbours. For my first fourteen years, Australia had always seemed unobtainably exotic; otherworldly, even. An upside-down place where our night was their day and our winter was their summer, literally half a world away.

To those of us who loved sport, particularly cricket and rugby league, it was also the place where touring England and GB sides would meet their nemesis in front of unforgiving locals, under unremitting sunshine, via an unsympathetic media. There was, of course the famous bridge, the opera house and (ahem) “Ayers Rock” – don’t @ me; this was still the mid-80s. Beyond that? Not so much, but let’s peer through the mists of time and have a look…

Monty Python, true to form, had been early to the ‘Straya’ culture party. So early, in fact that their two most passed-down Australian skits haven’t aged quite as well as their other Greatest Hits. The Australian Table Wines monologue pokes fun at “Cuvée…Wogga Wogga”, with another example being “compared favourably to a Welsh claret” but in reality, Australia was already becaming a major wine exporter, with Victoria’s Yarra Valley now as well-regarded as Napa Valley in California. The other sketch, about the Bruces of the Philosophy Department at the (fictitious) ‘University of Woolloomooloo’, would certainly now be prefaced with an “outdated references” warning, as you might expect for a script that, in 1970, lampooned the coarseness of certain Australians’ views towards minorities.

My own memory of “Down Under” references probably began with Down Under, the 1983 novelty hit by Men at Work, which ticked all the necessary stereotypes required to explain its popularity. Dame Edna Everage was a UK chat show favourite, albeit one where the ‘joke’ here was as much about female impersonation as the cutting satire about Australian attitudes. We’d had Mad Max but mostly, we’d struggled to separate its well-constructed dystopia from our naive presumptions of contemporary reality. And then there was the largely dull daytime saga, The Sullivans, a 1940s period piece that, for all we knew, might as well have been set in the (then) present-day.

Thanks to Attenborough et al., we knew about the kangaroos and the koalas and, of course, our light entertainers were all over the hats-with-corks imagery but thereafter, (and I’m having to say this), it was left to Rolf Harris to fill in the remaining gaps with his didgeridoo and evocative 4-inch brush paintings to give texture to UK audiences. Australia seemed to us a land of mostly comic stereotypes where even the real people behaved more like cartoon characters – I refer you to Merv Hughes or Angus Young. Beyond all this sideshow stuff, the rest of the country (the real bit) might as well have been a parallel universe.

Introduced to the UK in October 1986, Neighbours quickly became something of a cult daytime TV show; a mid-day ritual for your friends’ mums who didn’t work. It took another 14 months – and, reportedly, the daughter of BBC1’s Controller Michael Grade – before the day’s repeat showing was moved to the more teen-friendly 5:35pm slot. It was January 4th 1988, Angela Rippon’s Masterteam had been binned off and, finally, in that perfect slot between children’s telly and your Dad wanting the news on over tea, we had our chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Yes it was cheesy, yes the sets were as lightweight as the storylines and yes it was parochial and suburban. None of that mattered. In fact, this cocktail probably helped to make it so legendary. Suddenly, we saw a slice of what we considered to be ‘real’ Aussie life, neither historic nor futuristic; stripped of all the glossy tourist sights and scary wildlife. The weather might have been better than here and these neighbours looked nicer than ours but apart from that, it was, well, normal. And for that, with all its universal themes of boy-meets-girl, sibling rivalries and garden-fence-peering, we loved it.

It also furnished us with an extended vocabulary of dismissive terms. “Rack off!” was a classroom favourite, its raffish exoticism rather overshadowing any logical conclusion that it could only be a pre-watershed pseudo-curse rather than a synonym for the thing that we all knew it sounded a bit like. I’d hesitate to add the more authentic Aussie term “flamin’ galaah” on the grounds that it was more famously popularised by ‘Alf Stewart’ in the vastly inferior Home and Away.

Almost immediately, this tear in the zeitgeist unleashed a flurry of Antipodean soap stars upon our pop charts. First, Kylie, then Jason, then Stefan Dennis, then Craig MacLachlan, then Dannii, Natalie, and so on, and so on. It also seemed to fuel a boom in Aussie lager, as first Fosters and then Castlemaine XXXX adverts kept returning to the well of ‘outback’ stereotypes to shift their “amber nectar” onto the willing British palate. Equally incongruously, actual Australian favourite drinks like ‘VB’ and Toohey’s somehow managed not to cross the hemispheric divide.

Back in the world of ‘proper’ culture, Clive James, Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson were all gaining screen time, imprinting themselves further on our national consciousness. Even the self-parodying Crocodile Dundee was proof that, for the first time outside a sports ground, it was necessary for the rest of the world to start taking Australians seriously.

By November 1988, the month of ‘Scott’ & ‘Charlene’s wedding, the whole UK seemed to be enchanted by their fairytale – even with its idiosyncratic Aussie soundtrack, provided by Angry Anderson. To many of us, this ‘water-cooler’ moment (although I don’t think we called it that, then) was peak Neighbours. Our two young lovers, having got hitched, promptly “moved up to Brisbane”, where Kylie & Jason could more conveniently continue their pop careers. ‘Mike’ had also got it together, with “Plain Jane Superbrain”, so all the carefully-built will-they-won’t-they jeopardy was lost. The cycle of character development had to start again with some new neighbours…

As my education moved from school, to college, to university, there was still more ‘Australiana’ to be gained from Melbourne’s greatest cultural export. I was still watching Neighbours, but “ironically” by now – obviously. Okay, I admit, not always ironically. The same was true of my viewing late-night re-runs of its harder-hitting Reg Grundy predecessor, Prisoner: Cell Block H. Even amongst all this ‘irony’, it was still easy to embrace the fandom. Ian Smith (‘Harold Bishop’ on Ramsay Street) had been a producer, writer and even ‘Ted Douglas’, Head of “The Department” [of Correction] in Prisoner. Elspeth Ballantyne, who’d played ‘Meg Morris’ (the “screw” with a heart) in “Priz” then turned up in ‘Erinsborough’ as ‘Cathy Alessi’ in the early 90s. As students and therefore twice-daily Neighbours viewers who considered ourselves immune to all its tweeness, we couldn’t have been more thrilled!

The 90s also saw the beginnings of the web, an explosion of TV channels and a general re-framing of our perceptions of Australia, as part of ‘our universe’. Or, as Michael Hutchence would have put it, “Two worlds collided”. In 1993, I spent a raucous evening with a bunch of real-life Aussies: jubilant cricket fans in a pub in Leeds, after a(nother) disappointing day supporting England, at Headingley. The following year, I hard-wired my bedroom TV to the living room satellite box so I could watch overnight coverage of the Boxing Day Ashes Test, live from the MCG, while in bed. Suddenly, the world seemed much smaller and more connected. The distance remained but the power of the new information super-highway to link the whole planet meant the ‘parallel universe’ was no more.

As the 90s wore on, Kylie became a superstar, Jason not quite so much. Guy Pearce (‘Mike Young’) started appearing in cult films – and later began to appear in bigger films. It felt like the continuing presence of the old ‘Ramsay Street’ gang would be like a reassuring blanket as we all headed towards respectable adulthood, away from the street itself.

I was fortunate to meet and befriend a few Aussies around this time, learning more about the country, understanding the many differences between life in Queensland and Victoria. I remember thinking how unsophisticated it would be to ask “do you watch Neighbours?”, so I didn’t – although secretly, I always wanted to. With each Ashes tour (cricket and rugby league), I amassed a little more knowledge, to the point where an insubstantial soap opera from a Melbourne suburb ceased to be a necessary source of information about this intriguing country that was also, somehow, described as a continent.

At the dawn of the millennium, Australia laid down a marker by having not quite the first but certainly the best of the New Year celebrations. In Sydney Harbour, there was a perfect, iconic backdrop for this young, 212 year-old nation to captivate the whole planet. Sydney was also months away from hosting the Olympic Games and it was clear that the opportunity to demand the world’s attention was not going to be missed. Thanks to rolling news channels, the ‘SYD|NYE’ celebrations have subsequently become a highlight of New Year’s Eve: truly ‘appointment television’ – at 1pm every December 31st if you’re in the UK.

With an ever-increasing roster of live TV coverage from the place (NRL matches, Big Bash League, news throws to Australian Correspondents, even I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!), it became easier to work out the time differences and transpose the seasons. For years, I’d taught myself: New York – five hours behind; California – eight. To that I could add: Sydney – nine hours ahead in our summer, eleven in winter. Melbourne – same; Brisbane – forget the daylight saving; Adelaide – half an hour behind Melbourne; Perth – three hours behind Sydney.

By now, the fact of simply knowing people who lived there seemed to make the concept of Australia as accessible in the mind as other, closer countries. And there was a growing number of them: emigrating friends, business contacts, returning visitors. With the rise of social media, the divide was narrowing further still. When we saw headlines of flooding in Queensland or wildfires in New South Wales, it was no longer abstract; it meant something to someone you know – often potentially life-threatening.

And so, when the opportunity arose for us to make our own Grand Tour of this beguiling place, it was impossible to resist. It’s never not a big deal to go that far so we felt we needed to tick some serious bucket-list stuff. We went in December 2017, timed perfectly to take in (you’ve guessed it) a Boxing Day Ashes Test in Melbourne, a New Year in Sydney Harbour and a bit of snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an unbelievable two-and-a-half weeks, perfectly deserving of the description “once-in-a-lifetime” – although I do hope that proves to be inaccurate.

What made it even more special was the connection I now had with the place that the 14 year-old me could never have imagined possible. It’s a wonderful thing to realise daydreams and experience sights that were once so seemingly unreachable. It’s quite another when the place itself is not so alien or remote. Melbourne is now amongst my favourite cities and the MCG is every bit as awesome as I wanted it to be but it ‘feels’ infinitely more connected to me because we’re fortunate to have friends who live there. Being greeted at a faraway airport by a familiar face was a memory just as special as everything we’d planned to do. Similarly, Sydney may be jaw-droppingly beautiful but the same sense of connection is also there, thanks to just being able to arrange a meal out with friends in Darling Harbour – or to simply ‘pop in’ to see other friends in the Blue Mountains.

We did as much as, I think, it was possible to do in those 17 days and, inevitably, there’s so much left to see. Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Uluru, Tasmania, Bondi Beach are all on the still-to-do list, as is one other glaring omission…

Disclaimer: You have to remember we had only five days in Melbourne and hadn’t hired a car. We landed on 23rd December and half that day was written off with jet-lag (if you know…you know!). The next day, Christmas Eve, was spent walking around the city. We’d obviously made plans for Christmas Day and we soaked up the summer sunshine of the (to Northern hemisphere eyes) counter-intuitive Australian Christmas. Boxing Day was spent at the “G”, with 90-odd thousand others, watching cricket. Our final morning was spent mooching about central Melbourne: the Sea Life Centre and the Eureka Tower, before we caught the train at Flinders Street Station, to Frankston, to meet up with our old adopted-Melburnian mate, who’d offered to drive us to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade – something you simply have to do if you’re ever in Melbourne!

Have you spotted our omission yet? Sadly, we didn’t have time to venture out to Pin Oak Court – the real life name of ‘Ramsay Street’ – situated about eight miles east of the city centre. The closest I got to considering it was as we looked out over the sprawling suburbs from the top of the Eureka Tower. If I’m honest, I’d ‘moved on’ from Neighbours, years ago. It had served its purpose, both as adolescent entertainment and as a portal to another world. Thanks, in no small part, to the 1980s residents of ‘Erinsborough’, I was there, looking at it – sort of – from 975 feet up.

Looking eastwards from the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. In the foreground is the MCG (with Day 2 of an Ashes Test being played). Beyond that, among Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is Pin Oak Court – or ‘Ramsay Street’.

For many years, I loved watching Neighbours and I was so pleased to see all the old sentiments stirred in its final episode – there was no way I was going to miss that! I felt it was precisely the ‘victory lap’ that the show deserved. What became more important was the real legacy it left me – the door it opened to a fascinating land. And, thanks to the march of time and the increasing ability to connect every part the planet, even people on the other side of the world can be as much a part of your life as those who live in the same street.

That’s when good friends feel like close neighbours…

An album of our trip to Australia, via Singapore, can be found on my flickr page.

Tropic with Joy: Where It All Started

Originally posted at https://tropicwithjoy.com/2020/11/21/where-it-all-started/

One of the reasons I was first attracted to the Tropic range of skincare products was the fact that it was inspired by the tropical coast of North Queensland in Australia. It’s a place that holds many happy memories for me.

In 2018, we were lucky enough to visit the area, to see the Great Barrier Reef. It was a true bucket-list ‘tick’ on an amazing holiday. The only reason I wouldn’t call it a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ is that I’d love to do it all again! We’d just spent Christmas in Melbourne and New Year’s Eve in Sydney, watching the world-famous firework display from a paddle steamer in the Harbour.

After a few hours’ sleep, we checked out of our hotel on New Year’s Day and flew to Cairns, the town where Tropic’s founder, Susie Ma, grew up – the place where it all started.

We’d been advised by Australian friends that the place to explore the Barrier Reef from is a town called Port Douglas, about an hour’s drive North of Cairns. We picked up our hire car and made our way up the coast road. The stunning scenery, the exotic vegetation and the perfect beaches you see whenever you read Tropic’s literature, or the Tropic website, all reminded me of that wonderful time in our lives.

We had an amazing time at Port Douglas, including a truly magical day snorkelling on the Barrier Reef. If you ever get the chance to go, I would advise that you say yes in a heartbeat. You’ll fall in love with its unique beauty and will never forget that you were part of this tropical paradise.

Maybe, like me, you’ll feel more connected with a range of skincare products that came from the area and that respect the natural world that places like the Barrier Reef require us to, more and more. Maybe the sight of a few palm trees will take you back to being in paradise and maybe you’ll feel a permanently connection with the place, even when you’re taking care of your skin.

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, Australia

So Far Ahead of the UK

Back in July, I wrote with some concern about the decision to soften the UK’s lockdown measures, citing the fact that Melbourne was about to enter a second-wave curfew. Today, as the UK experiences its highest level of daily deaths since May, Australia’s second city is about to come out of lockdown again, amid international praise for its adherence to disease control measures.

On Sunday, the NRL’s Grand Final was played in front of nearly 40,000 fans at a deliberately half-full ANZ Stadium in Sydney and there are now no limits on sporting attendance in neighbouring New Zealand. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that a combination of circumstance and leadership quality has lead to this diametrically opposite outcome on the other side of the world.

I wish my Melburnian friends well after their sacrifices since July but, more fervently, I wish we in Europe were as disciplined as they have been.

Looking east from the Eureka Tower viewing level, along the Yarra to Melbourne’s CBD, the MCG and AAMI Park. Flinders Street Station is in the bottom-left. Photo: Paul Bentham

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?

As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final.  I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly).  I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.

Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be.  Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly.  I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.

Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism.  Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.

You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007.  There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint.  If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories.  It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before?  According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say?  As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:

2007  St. Helens 30–8  Catalans Dragons 84,241
2008  St. Helens 28–16  Hull 82,821
2009  Warrington 25–16  Huddersfield 76,560
2010  Warrington 30–6  Leeds 85,217
2011  Wigan 28–18  Leeds 78,482
2012  Warrington 35–18  Leeds 79,180
2013  Wigan 16–0  Hull 78,137
2014  Leeds 23-10  Castleford 77,914
2015  Leeds 50-0  Hull Kingston Rovers 80,140
2016  Hull 12–10  Warrington 76,235
2017  Hull 18–14  Wigan Warriors 68,525

So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.

The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure.  This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year.  It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?

At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate.  When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket.  Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands.  I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money.  In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.

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“It’s who you know”: The 2011 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, taken from the Club Wembley seating in the middle tier

You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute.  It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said.  Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.

I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply.  The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’.  The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers.  The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds.  The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.

Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend?  Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000.  In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.

Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming.  I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”.  On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.

*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.

What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where.  If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry.  To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full.  Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline.  It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form.  Remember the 2013 World Cup?  The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game.  The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees.  From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?

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England v Australia, the opening fixture of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions.  For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act).  As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.

2007  Leeds 33–6  St. Helens  71,352
2008  Leeds 24–16  St. Helens  68,810
2009  Leeds 18–10  St. Helens  63,259
2010  Wigan 22–10  St. Helens  71,526
2011  Leeds 32–16  St. Helens  69,107
2012  Leeds 26–18  Warrington  70,676
2013  Wigan 30–16  Warrington  66,281
2014  St. Helens 14–6  Wigan  70,102
2015  Leeds 22–20  Wigan  73,512
2016  Wigan 12–6  Warrington  70,202

And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match.  Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.

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Not the best picture of the crowd at the 2013 World Cup Final but the filled stand to the left is where you’ll find the TV camera gantry at Old Trafford

The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league.  Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.

The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK.  The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days.  Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day.  That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift.  Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.

Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat.  Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester.  Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?

It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds.  An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final.  Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there.  As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.

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Spot the Saints fans, if you can.  And then mock them!

I think there are other factors.  Bank Holidays are divisive things: enabling grand days out for many but also providing prohibitive alternative attractions which aren’t always easy to avoid, like weddings, long weekends away or, in my case, family holidays (I was driving home, trying to avoid being drawn onto the Péripherique in Paris, last Saturday, while asking for regular updates from Wembley on the BBC Sport app).  Bank Holidays also seem to promise extra travel problems too.  A terrible crash on the M1 and the closure of Euston station, last Saturday seem to be further invitations not to bother again, in future.  I appreciate there were many finals held on the Saturday of the May Day weekend, years ago but was the Challenge Cup not equally well served by holding its final in the last weekend in April?  It seems so: 94,273 Wigan and Halifax fans attended the 1988 final on April 30th, that year.

The mood music is not great, wherever you point your ear, though.  Earlier this year, the RFL caused some consternation by raising the possibility that future Challenge Cup finals may not be played at Wembley, surely a red line-crosser for most fans of the sport.  Even in Australia, the home of the dominant Kangaroos and the all-conquering NRL, all is not rosy in the garden.  As in England, parochial imbalances afflict the sport there, with comparable constraints and similar initiatives to counter them.  In particular, the go-to remedy to address the suburban Sydney clubs’ willingness to exceed their local confines is to play selected regular season games at the 83,000-seat ANZ Stadium, the cavernous-when-empty home of the 2000 Olympics.  If you think the hastily-decorated bank of empty seats at Wembley signify problems in our game, wait ’til you’ve seen a round of NRL played before barely 10% occupancy and a veritable Southern ocean of blue seating blocks.

I’ll soon get over Wigan’s loss at Wembley, I’m sure – possibly as soon as Friday if we can bounce back and put one over on our bitter rivals from St. Helens.  I’m also sure that this year’s Grand Final will attract around 70,000 or more again this year (hopefully with around half of them wearing cherry and white, again).  The real litmus test will come the next time the game holds a showpiece away from the M62 corridor.  The location of the 2018 Magic Weekend is, as yet, unconfirmed.  The three most-attended incarnations have all come at Newcastle – albeit no single day there has ever left fewer than 12,000 empty seats – so it’s the most obvious choice.  An outside bet may be the Ricoh Arena in Coventry: desperate for the money, tried successfully for home internationals in recent years and offering an achievable capacity of over 32,000.  It would be a venue less likely to visually advertise any shortfall in ticket sales but its very selection could be seen as a tacit admission of the RFL’s desire to play safe and not over-extend.

As a fan, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, either way, about the choice of venue for a round of Super League fixtures in late May.   I would however worry what the implications would be of anything that could be construed to be ‘damage-limitation thinking’ on the future of the game’s oldest and noblest occasion.  Wembley is a non-negotiable part of the Challenge Cup and more must be done to ensure it is filled on the one day a year our sport has it.

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