You do not even need to step inside Wembley to understand rugby league’s lengthy and rich history with the national stadium. A statue immortalising five of the game’s greatest players – Eric Ashton, Billy Boston, Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy and Gus Risman – has pride of place outside the ground but, in an ever-changing sporting landscape, history alone is not enough to guarantee a long-term future.
That never felt more evident for the game than on Saturday, when the Challenge Cup final took in new surroundings across the capital at Tottenham. For some traditionalists, moving the cup final away from Wembley is an act of sin, tantamount to rugby league turning its back on a history and heritage of which the game is fiercely proud. But as Liam Farrell and Thomas Leuluai lifted the cup for Wigan, it was hard not to think of an alternative, post-Wembley world for rugby league.
After the Rugby Football League was forced into a switch for the final this year because of a clash with the EFL playoffs, the early noises about Tottenham as hosts are promising. The Guardian has been told the Premier League club was exceptional to work with on all levels in terms of staging the event and has left the door ajar for a return at some stage, though it has already been confirmed that the final will return to Wembley next year.
But for more than one reason, Wembley is not the be all and end all for rugby league like it was a generation or so ago. Crowds have dipped at the national stadium for a few years, with the last crowd in excess of 70,000 in 2016. That was also the last year the Club Wembley total of around 10,000 seats was automatically included in the attendance figure, so since returning to Wembley in 2007 crowd numbers have always been skewed somewhat.
The bigger priority for rugby league has always been keeping the cup final, the most important day in the calendar, in London. The Challenge Cup final belongs in the capital, allowing fans to descend from the north and have a big day out each year no matter who they support. But unlike 20 or 30 years ago, there are now options for the RFL to consider long term, as was underlined by the spectacle at Tottenham on Saturday.
Wembley is far from the only state-of-the-art venue in London capable of hosting a major final and, given the crowd figures, somewhere such as Tottenham is actually a better fit. Throw in the Emirates Stadium, which will host a World Cup semi ‑ final this autumn, and you have venues which are not only more suited to a cup final but arguably even more exciting and attractive to visit than Wembley.
The belief that there is life outside of Wembley is also reflected in the World Cup schedule this year. Previously, a home World Cup in England without a Wembley game would have been unthinkable. The 2013 event held the semi-final double-header there and in the 1995 version the old Wembley hosted the final, but this year the venue has been overlooked. The London option is, as mentioned, the Emirates Stadium for the men’s semi-finals, with the final at Old Trafford.
A crowd of almost 52,000 on Saturday would have looked sparse inside Wembley, too, and with a cost-of-living crisis almost certainly being felt harder in the rugby league demographics of the north. With events such as the Magic Weekend in Newcastle and the Super League grand final at Old Trafford now regulars on the calendar, filling a venue as big as Wembley is not quite as straightforward as it once was.
With all of those financial factors to consider for supporters, there is no shame in rugby league choosing a stadium slightly smaller than Wembley and aiming to fill it.
Creating a situation where demand exceeds supply could have a positive knock-on effect, too, and the fact that tickets are extremely affordable for the World Cup this year – adults can watch the semi-final at the Emirates Stadium for as little as £ 20 – could set the tone for a tweak in Challenge Cup prices, with ticket prices for the final on Saturday as high as £ 70.
It is important to note that in the short term nothing is going to change too much; the sport has an arrangement with Wembley which will ensure the final is held there until at least 2027. But that is only five years away and occasions such as Saturday might only increase the appetite to think about what a revised future for one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar looks like.
Unlike before, when Wembley was the holy grail for rugby league, there are factors both inside and outside the game that suggest change is no longer unthinkable.
As the sun sets on a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in new surroundings, perhaps it’s time rugby league reimagined its relationship with Wembley once and for all.