Rugby League cup finals showed me why there's no substitute for live sport - Alastair Campbell

If football is my No 1 spectator sport, rugby league vies with cricket for the runner-up slot. Indeed, the ten-year-old me growing up in Yorkshire had clear ambitions … ‘play football for Burnley and Scotland, rugby league for Keighley and Great Britain, cricket for Yorkshire and England.’

Back then, you had to be born in Yorkshire to play for the county – which I was – and my very Scottish parents meant I qualified to play for Scotland at football. The only slight problem was that ‘OK’ was about as good as I got at any of my chosen sports. Indeed, my Dad got closer, as he was once asked by the Keighley RLFC matchday doctor to stand in for him – a remarkable invitation, given my Dad was a vet!

Though my childhood fantasies went nowhere (unless you count having played with Maradona and Pele, and hit Wasim Akram for four, in charity matches in my late 40s) they bred in me a passion for sport that has given me some of the best moments of my life.

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I can, and with the Olympics now on, I do, spend hours lying on a sofa watching sport. But there is still no subsititute for ‘being there,’ as I was recently for the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, St Helens against Castleford, with a bonus ‘warm up’ game between Featherstone and York - the ‘1895 Cup Final’ - in recognition of the year of the schism between North and South which led to the creation of this wonderful sport.

Fans celebrate a try at the Challenge Cup Final between St Helens and Castleford

That birth was an early example of levelling up for the North, and somewhat more effective than the efforts of Johnson and the Corrupt Cabal to give meaning to their slogan of that name.

As so often in British history, class and privilege were at the heart of the drama. Rugby owes its name to the private school of that town, and its administration was dominated by the wealthy and entitled in the south. Yet many of the best players were in the North.

As the game became more popular, money flowed into it, but its strictly amateur code meant none of it could go to players. This was a huge disadvantage to working-class teams whose players’ time for training and playing was restricted by the need to make a living; not to mention fund their own medical care and time off if injured.

Allied to the sense that all the big decisions were being made in London, a sense of injustice grew until 22 clubs decided to form ‘the Northern Rugby Football Union.’ Sanctions followed against all involved. The schism was complete.

Initially they played exactly the same game. The changes – a reduction in team size from 15 to 13, no line-outs, different scoring systems – evolved over time into the sport we know today. But if rugby union has remained a largely middle-class sport, so rugby league has remained predominantly working-class, players and fans alike, and in many ways the best of the working class too.

If football coming home (sic) had created a drink and drug-fuelled, bottle-throwing mess up Wembley Way for the final of the Euros, the family atmosphere at the rugby league final a week later could not have been more different.

As I sat with my son enjoying two terrific matches, pitch-side adverts kept flashing up for the World Cup in England later this year. Later I started to check out where and when the big games were likely to be. Essentially that meant checking out where and when New Zealand, Australia and England – ranked 1, 2 and 3 in the world - were playing.

I was trying to work out the likeliest route to a repeat of the last World Cup final in 2017, when Australia narrowly beat England. New Zealand may be ranked No 1 but I still think the Aussies are favourites.

Well I did … until Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement saying they were pulling out. "The Covid-19 situation in the UK shows no sign of improving, and it's simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over," they said.

On the one hand it would mean England having a better chance of winning it. But a Rugby League World Cup without Australia and New Zealand is like the Euros without Italy, France, Germany and Belgium.

"Keep politics out of sport," has to be one of the most naïve exhortations known to man. To be fair to the government – though it is hard with this lot - they played their part, not least with money, in ensuring the tournament could take place.

The Aussie/NZ decision is riddled with politics. There are many who think it is more about Australia, where rugby league is the number one sport, ensuring the top clubs’ best players are not stuck in post-World Cup quarantine as the domestic season starts. So the Rugby Football League chairman Simon – no relation – Johnson called the decision "selfish, cowardly, parochial".

Why, ask the cynics, if they are not letting their players travel to England, were there so many Aussie and Kiwi athletes – not least Burnley striker Chris Wood – in Japan for the Olympics?

But this is where the other Johnson and our wretched government come in. Japan may have cases rising, but nothing like here. Japan is doing everything it can to make the Games Covid secure, up to and including a state of emergency and the decision to have no fans at any events.

Compare and contrast the image Britain has been sending to the world in recent weeks. Big crowds for the Euros, followed by a big rise in cases. The fiasco of the final, the violence and disorder, then the race row which followed England’s defeat.

Then so-called Freedom Day, and the world looking on with a mix of shock and bemusement as our government, uniquely, drove policy in direct contradiction of the data, only then to see our Prime Minister first trying to wriggle out of, then being confined by, his own muddled policy. If the Aussie rugby league authorities were indeed looking for a reason to pull the plug, Johnson gift-wrapped it for them, with love and kisses from Chequers.

Also it was not the Australians, but New Zealand Rugby League CEO Greg Peters who pointed out: "There are stark differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australasia and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change."

Add in, with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, NZ Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern recently warning the UK they risked endangering new deals around the world if they were seen to break international law, and, well … while ministers tour the studios boasting of their endlessly world-beating qualities, the actual real world sees a scruffy, lying, unfunny global joke as Prime Minister and a risky experiment masquerading as Covid strategy.

So should we really be shocked if sporting bodies at the other side of the world decide that a mix of rogue state and plague nation is not the best place to send some of your most famous and treasured sports stars?

Wrecking the Rugby League World Cup will not feature even in the top thousand of Johnson’s high crimes and misdemeanours when the history books are written. But they all add up. As with Trump, it is becoming evident even while he is in office that history will judge Johnson harshly. The tragedy is that we have to live with him in the here and now even as that judgement becomes ever more obvious with every day that passes.

And ask yourself this, as Johnson and Co parade as friends of the North: If for some reason France, Italy, Germany and Belgium HAD decided not to take part in the Euros, with the semi-finals and final at Wembley, do you not think Johnson would be a little more active than he has been with the Aussies and the Kiwis, pressing them to think again?

Alastair Campbell is a journalist, author, broadcaster and former spokesman for the Labour Party.