Last year I wrote,
A crowd of nearly 21,000, bigger than those at three Premiership football matches, turned up to watch a triple header of lower division Rugby League. The National League finals is now one of the great days out that the RFL do really well.This year, a crowd of just over 7,000 turned up to leave the smaller stadium half-empty. It is still a great day out and this time we saw three close contests and the Division One final between Salford and Celtic Crusaders was a thriller. Salford, to my chagrin, equalised with a last-second penalty to make the score 18-18 and take us to extra time where their superior fitness told.
So why are the Rugby Football League trying to kill it? This is the last year of automatic promotion and relegation with a franchise system due to come in for next season. Instead of prowess on the field, the key to entry to Super League will be lobbying off it. Will grounds be filled to watch two teams play for little reward? I doubt it.
Was I right? In one sense the comparison is unfair. Salford and Celtic Crusaders have both been granted Super League franchises though neither are well-supported. If Salford fans are relatively small in number, the Crusaders' fan base is tiny and though I really wish Welsh Rugby League well, I have to wonder if their elevation has come a few years early, like Gateshead and Paris before them.
The big test will be next year when the favourites to contest the final will be teams with much larger support, Leigh, Widnes and Halifax spring to mind. However, this year's crowd shows that there is a lot of work to do to re-establish the National League in the public's imagination.