Fan Violence is becoming more and more common in Rugby League, and it seems like The RFL are not keen on eradicating it or even doing something about it, they would rather pass the blame onto ‘football fans’ who come to a game so they can fight, this is most certainly not the case.
The Million Pound Game produced one of the most exciting ends ever to a rugby league match, Salford were 18-10 down with 90 seconds left, and 90 seconds later they managed to snatch a draw in the eyes of defeat. You’d have been a fool to not think that Salford would go onto win the game, they had all the momentum and their Super League status was saved by arguably the greatest drop goal Super League has seen from Gareth O’Brien, which sent Salford and their fans into delirium and Hull Kingston Rovers to the Championship. The scenes that followed were unsavoury. I have no problem with fans entering the pitch in such circumstances, not many would be able to stop themselves, however what I do have a problem with is the fighting between fans, which has become more and more prominent in the sport over the past few years.
I am a Widnes fan, and have been to almost every game for the past 5 seasons, and the majority of home fixtures since 2005. As you can imagine I have seen first hand the violence that has followed my club. My first recollection of violence was at Wakefield away in early September 2012, myself, and the rest of the Widnes fans were put into the North Stand along with the home fans. The game was a closely fought contest, which ended in fans fighting. This was at the time an isolated incident, but it appeared to lead to future aggressive incidents when visiting Belle Vue. Whilst holidaying in Florida in July 2013 news got to me that there was a significant fight in the crowd at Wakefield, again involving Widnes fans, this was the root of Widnes fans being seen as ‘the scum of rugby league’.
Warrington v Widnes 15th August 2013, Widnes win 16-6 with 12 men after Hep Cahill put a high tackle on his future coach Brett Hodgson. This also saw Widnes complete the double over their local rivals, Jack Owens got 2 tries either side of Patrick ah Van crossing over. I remember the day well, getting the train to Warrington, walking to the McDonalds’ and getting into the ground. Prior to kick off a Widnes fan set off a smoke bomb as the players came to the field, which saw the offender removed from the stadium. Warrington scored first that night through Simon Grix. Owens got over for his first try, which was then followed by the red for Cahill, showing the intensity of a local derby where both sides hate each other. I believe this is the best derby in rugby, but of course I would, it’s my derby. Widnes went on to win the game; this is my favourite game I’ve ever been to, the perfect away win. We were in ecstasy, marching back to Central Station we go past the Kings Head pub singing our victory songs. I remember it feeling tense and then seeing fighting, the next thing I remember is a glass going just past my head, then a huge brawl broke out, which I stayed away from and got into the station. The police were spraying pepper spray and battening supporters, arrests were made and bans handed out. Over the next few days I discovered a video in which a Warrington steward assaulted a Widnes fan before escorting him out of the ground. I don’t remember anything coming of this video, but it shows that violence is well and truly alive in rugby league.
Almost 12 months later Widnes managed to get to the Challenge Cup Semi-Final against Castleford Tigers held at Leigh Sports Village. We all know what happened there, but I have never shared my recollection of what happened. Widnes massively underperformed that day, which shattered our dreams of getting to Wembley to return the glory days. In just 3 seasons we had gone from struggling team to top 8, which showed the licencing system was working. Widnes scored late on to gain some pride from a completely dominating performance from Castleford Tigers. Before the game the town was buzzing with excitement with unprecedented queues to get tickets for the day, which saw my friend and me unable to attain tickets behind the sticks having to sit on the side instead. Unlike normal away games there was a lot more people attending, again some of them for a one off because it was a big game and an excuse to drink, others were season ticket holders looking forward to the big day. There was a lot more alcohol consumption than usual, which of course meant people were more under the influence of alcohol than usual. The full time hooter went and almost immediately Widnes fans invaded the pitch. I was sat on line with the try line in the corner where Paddy Flynn had scored just minutes before, I’ll never forgot what happened in front of me. A Widnes fan approached a steward and started punching him for no reason whatsoever. This upset my friend and me and also made us angry that he would be associated with such a great club like Widnes. I believe that a mixture of alcohol and a feeling of being let down by the performance ultimately led to the unsavoury scenes at Leigh Sports Village. You’ve seen the rest and you don’t need me to go into what happened.
About 2 months later we faced Warrington away in the elimination play-off, which was definitely a winnable game for us. We had the best start that we could have dreamt of going 18-0 up, however we conceded just before half time, which turned the game in Warrington’s favour. However it was still our game to lose as we went in 19-6 up at half time. Warrington dominated the second half, we were heartbroken, and we should have won that day. Afterwards we were walking back to the train station, where I was given abuse by a Warrington fan, I told him to come over the road and say it to me, but he didn’t, which was probably for the best as I would have had another violent moment in rugby league to talk about.
Magic Weekend this year also bemused me, what right-minded person would put Widnes, Warrington and Wigan fans all in the same stand? Someone who clearly has no idea what rivalries these great clubs have, which again is something special in our game. We were pestered for the majority of the Widnes game by a steward who was asking us at to sit down despite being in no one’s view as we were at the back of our section, he was told the same answer from everyone he asked that we couldn’t see because people in front were standing up. He persisted in picking on us and ejected a young fan from the ground despite him doing nothing different than the rest of us. He eventually gave up with his lost cause and told me that ‘some idiot has put you lot and Warrington in the same stand!’ Even a Geordie knew of the rivalry between these two clubs so why couldn’t someone at the RFL understand it? Sure Magic Weekend is a great event, but more and more violence is creeping into the occasion, and I doubt it’ll stop until teams are designated certain sections within the stadiums.
As much as the RFL tries to say that Rugby League is a ‘family game’ we all know that is not true, how can a contact sport be a ‘family sport’? Sport is a tribal thing, which has 1000s of followers per team. Inevitably sport does bring violence and there is nothing you can do to completely rid the sport of it, it just won’t happen, but there are measures that can be put in place to prevent it as much as possible. It’s time that rugby league stopped taking the high ground by ‘not being football’ and blaming ‘football fans’ for fighting. Segregation needs to happen, and alcohol on the terraces should be banned. Anyone who complains about such an alcohol ban needs to take a look at themself, if they can’t go 40 minutes without a drink then there must be a problem that they need to address. Segregation is pretty much in place, away fans generally get their own stand, if they are not able to get a full stand then, stewards and barriers must be in place to make sure segregation is happening.
Furthermore after looking at the footage from the Million Pound Game I saw a lot of inadequate stewarding, some not even attempting to prevent fighting and a lack of an action plan for how to react to such a situation. Additionally I find it worrying at how easily fans got onto the pitch, therefore there should be barriers that stop this happening for example higher advertisement hording. A game being contested at such a tempo with a place in Super League on the line will have fans on edge, and if they win they may be unable to control themselves, and if they lose they will be completely devastated, that’s how human beings work, emotions are always running high.
It seems to me that there are easy ways of preventing such scenes from reoccurring, however nothing will completely stop violence at sports matches because of what sport and supporting a team is about. If the RFL are committed to making rugby league a ‘family game’ then they must follow these guidelines.