It’s been a difficult start to the season for Harlequins, both on and off the pitch.
Brian McDermott’s side have fallen to six defeats from seven games, with only a hard fought 16-4 victory over Catalans in February to show for their early season efforts.
But more worrying has been the decrease in attendance, which has left many questioning the long term potential of a club in the capital. Just 2,624 turned up for Saturday’s game against Huddersfield, a figure which was bolstered by a couple of hundred travelling fans from Yorkshire, while the previous week saw just 2,395 turn up to see the defeat to Salford. The lowest figure was the 2,330 crowd against Catalans last month, and only 3,612 turned up to see Quins take on NRL champions Melbourne in a friendly the week after.
Prior to the season’s start, RFL chairman Richard Lewis said Harlequins were paramount to the future of Super League. He said: “We need to strike a balance and make sure that the Super League is seen by as many people as possible but at the same time recognizing that London and Harlequins are important to us. It’s important that the club is seen as strong and as vibrant as any other in the league because they are strategically important to the sport.”
It’s natural that the RFL want a base in the media-centric south, but London continues to struggle. The move to Twickenham and the subsequent adoption of the Harlequins moniker, which essentially saved the club from folding, hasn’t had the desired effect. The club struggles to build its own identity, and is instead trapped under one of the most well known rugby union names in the world.
With the bulk of rugby league operations existing up north, Quins often pass under the radar, and it is sometimes difficult to pass authoritative judgement on the situation down south. With that in mind, I spoke to a long term fan of the club, for his views on their situation.
“The club don’t appear to be doing enough marketing, or certainly not anything visible! There’s nothing in Twickenham, Hounslow or Richmond town centres to indicate there’s a team playing down the road. In years gone by you might often see posters up in shops at the very least. Not once have the club targeted households in the local vicinity.
“I’ve spoken with many local fans who have never even received a leaflet through there letterbox. The club need to look at what they’d done in the past that’s worked, marketing wise, and repeat if successful. I don’t believe that a winning team will instantly bring in the crowds, it’ll help but won’t add a few thousand.”
But despite the struggles on the pitch, Harlequins’ Super League future seems secure. That won’t please fans of a few northern based clubs, least of all Widnes, who regularly attract better attendances than the London club. With Super League set to stay at 14 teams for 2012 and beyond, at least one team will need to be culled to accomodate a new addition from the Championship, promised by the RFL ahead of the next round of licence applications.
He added: “I think the club tick all the other boxes in the licence category such as ground and player development. Also, Sky reportedly pay more to have a London based team so all teams in SL actually benefit from Quins being in Super League.”
The grass roots development in the south east has rocketed in the past decade. While fans are keen to snipe at the low turnout for matches at Twickenham Stoop, more people than ever before are enjoying the greatest game. But just why are they not turning out to support London’s elite professional side?
“I have some interesting insight into why the junior system down here doesn’t work for Quins. Basically we have 20k-30k kids playing the sport which sounds great but if you actually think about it a large % of these get taught it in schools, another load go to afterschool or weekend training for junior clubs and neither of these things will mean they will go watch Quins. Professional players in league don’t have the cult following of footballers and they aren’t famous in that respect so kids don’t have them as idols. I would say that a vast majority of the 20-30k junior players haven’t even seen a live rugby league match, they probably just think they are playing rugby union.
Reportedly, Quins changed their logo from Quins RL to Harlequins Rugby League as kids being taught in schools by QRL staff thought that the RL in Quins RL stood for “rugby lessons”, rather than rugby league. It’s another example of just why the dual-code branding just isn’t working for the league side.
“Also the fact that there’s massive development in south of London is fantastic but this is among the poorest boroughs in London, people won’t even have SKY let alone go along to west London and pay £10/£20 to watch quins. Parents send their kids to training to get them out of the house for a Saturday, it costs nothing or very little but these people have no intension of going to Quins.”
There appears to be a myth too that no Super League will mean all the great work done at a grassroots level will stop. My source said: “I would imagine the majority of juniors aren’t aiming for professional rugby so therefore they’d be unaffected. It would of course be disadvantageous to the other juniors striving for professional careers in the sport but these would need to undergo development at (London) Skolars instead.”
It seems that rugby league in London will be a debate that rumbles on for many a year yet. It’s certainly an unenviable job for the people behind Quins to keep the flag flying, but maybe one day, with the right people, the right passion and the right support, they might be able to turn to the flat cappers and say “we told you so”. When and if that day comes, remains to be seen.