Rugby League Expert & Columnist
“I live in Widnes and it is the hub of the community. Everyone talks about rugby league,” says O’Connor
Last Updated: 26/08/20 8:53pm
Terry O’Connor has hailed the importance of rugby league to the communities of the sport’s heartland, as it prepares to reach a significant milestone.
Saturday, August 29 marks 125 years to the day since 22 clubs agreed to break away from the Rugby Football Union to set up the Northern Union – now Rugby Football League – and ultimately become what is now recognised as a distinct sport in its own right.
O’Connor’s hometown club of Widnes, the three-time British champions and seven-time Challenge Cup winners, were one of those founder members and the former Great Britain and Ireland international knows first-hand what rugby league still means in the area.
“It’s incredible we’re still here,” O’Connor told Sky Sports News. “We’re talking about a sport which was highly controversial when it split, and you look how it’s changed lives and helped communities.
“I live in Widnes and it is the hub of the community. Everyone talks about rugby league and even if you don’t get the whole of Halton or Widnes into the stands, everyone has got an opinion on it.
“Sometimes we take for granted what the sport does for the community and the youngsters in the community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic means the RFL have had to adapt their plans to celebrate the 125th anniversary this weekend. However, there will still be a commemorative event outside The George Hotel in Huddersfield, venue of that 1895 meeting, on Saturday.
Like all sports, rugby league is still feeling the effects of the pandemic, with every level below Super League on hold in terms of playing matches or competitions and the top flight facing being played behind closed doors until at least October 1.
However, RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer has given assurances over the state of the sport as it prepares to mark 125 years and builds towards the Rugby League World Cup on these shores next year.
“I think we’re in a pretty strong position,” Rimmer told the Golden Point Vodcast. “The government have supported us as well [with a £16m loan], which is great recognition.
“We’re the only sport which has won that and that shouldn’t be forgotten, and that’s because of the work we do in those communities and the government recognising how important we are.
“This is an extraordinary time, we need to pull together, we need to face it together. We are doing some quite amazing things and some of the action we’ve seen over the past couple of weekends shows we’re a difficult sport to put down.
“We’ll get through it, we’ll put a World Cup on, and we’ll emerge again and once again start moving forward towards the next 125 years.”
Rimmer is also in talks to persuade the government to choose rugby league for pilot events around allowing fans back into stadiums with socially distancing in place ahead of the planned return in October.
The return of spectators, even in limited numbers, will be a welcome boost for all involved in the sport and Sky Sports rugby league expert O’Connor knows from personal experience of his playing days how much it means to supporters.
“I remember when I was playing for Wigan and played against Widnes, and I was getting hammered by a couple of voices who lived in the same street as me,” O’Connor said.
“Not only did one hammer me, I was thinking stood there ‘this lad who goes to work on a Monday is a policeman!’, but people get wrapped up in the sport and in their team.
“We all love it and we’re all involved, and we’re fortunate to be involved and I wonder what the game will look like in another 125 years.”