If you were to ask the average man on the street; where’s best to launch a brand new rugby league competition, it’s highly unlikely they’d reply “Paris”.
And yet, on the 29th March 1996, that’s exactly what happened when PSG took on the Sheffield Eagles in front of 18,000 fans at Stade Charlety, in the first ever Betfred Super League fixture.
Even when the brilliantly named Frederick Banquet crossed for the first try, few would have predicted the levels of drama, controversy, hiding-behind-the-sofa moments and excitement that have been served up for the last 23 years.
But really, that game was the perfect metaphor for what would follow; frantic, unapologetically physical and high-scoring, the 30-24 win for the French side was a statement of intent for Rugby League’s striking new persona.
Any cynics who had who criticised the move to summer were quickly trying to put the ink back in their pens as games got quicker, error counts dropped, and as the temperatures soared, so occasionally, did tempers. The dawn of Super League reignited old rivalries with fresh vigour.
Rugby League wasn’t invented in 1996, but a Saints/Wigan Good Friday derby now feels as synonymous with Easter as rabbits and chocolate eggs. Too many classics to list, but as I’ve discovered whilst writing this article, googling the 22-22 draw in 2001 leads you down a Youtube rabbit-hole of moments that are etched deep in rugby league folklore (2004, Paul Sculthorpe, Andy Farrell, you know the rest).
And whilst the PSG experiment may have faded away, Super League’s commitment to expansion never waivered. Since first entering the league in 2006, Catalans Dragons have developed far beyond being a novelty away day, into a trophy winning, play-off contending, thrill-a-minute Rugby League Football side.
Despite changes in leadership, branding and structure, this core principle of innovation has remained at the very heart of Super League. The Magic Weekend has taken the game to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool and has now become one of the landmark events in the sporting calendar, so much so that our Australian cousins in the NRL have now followed suit.
On the subject of showcases, show me a better stage for a Grand Final than a packed out Old Trafford on a Saturday night. I’m yet to see one.
Of course, not all of Super League’s innovations have worked (remember club-call?) but it’s ability to evolve and adapt over time has provided us with drama that will endure a lifetime.
October 1st 2016. Craven Park. The Million Pound Game concept had it’s critics, but as Gareth O’Brien’s 50m Drop Goal sailed over in Golden Point, Rugby League was propelled into the spotlight on a national scale.
In 2019 Super League continues to approach new frontiers for the sport. Anfield will host the Magic Weekend, just a week after Catalans and Wigan share one of the most recognisable stages in world sport; the Nou Camp.
23 years on from that night in Paris, the 2019 Betfred Super League has proved to be one of the most captivating ever. Each week has thrown up unexpected results, and a new generation of stars are busy writing their name deep in rugby league history.
At Betfred, we are proud to sponsor Super League, and if the story so far is anything to go by, we can’t wait for the next 23 years!
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