‘Welcome to Wigan, dickhead’: Rugby league’s a different ball game in the concrete jungle of post-Thatcher Britain


Rugby League dynasties are like monopolies. They are allergic to competition.

Brisbane owned a state, Melbourne kept a second set of books, and the Roosters donned a salary cap sombrero.

Newly crowned, Penrith’s dynasty feels more old-fashioned, born from solid Rugby League values. Catchments, pathways, and pokies. Gus’ holy trinity for cultivating (and monopolising) local juniors. A fool-proof model for surviving the salary cap’s redistributive justice.

And what of Wigan? Under Maurice Lindsay, their late-80s to mid-90s dynasty forged a new market. Murdoch piled in. As did Richard Branson. Rugby League was hot, but so were Wigan’s assets. Branson lured Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah down the M6. Jason Robinson was enticed by the old, now legit, sterling of the RFU, and Central Park was turned into a commodity. And then a Tesco car park. A rugby league club survived. Wigan, the super club, did not.

A rugby league truth: Queen of the Nile will trump millions in Murdoch TV rights. Pokie revenues remain undefeated.

Wigan now reside at DW Stadium. A multi-use stadium found off a nondescript Greater Manchester highway at the arse end of Robin Retail Park.

Thankfully, Robin Retail Park has no need for a Tesco because it bloody well has everything else. You’ll find a Nando’s for your bulking, a KFC for your ballooning, and a JD Sports gym to balance it all out. Boots sorts your supplements, Tui packages your vitamin D, Costa Coffee fixes your morning narcotic, Marks and Spencer supplies your middle-class carrots, and Club3000 Bingo promises your stairway to heaven.

WIGAN, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 24: Jake Wardle of Wigan Warriors sscore his team’s third try during the Betfred World Club Challenge match between Wigan Warriors and Penrith Panthers at DW Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Lit up behind the concreted capitalism of post-Thatcher Britain, DW Stadium then feels appropriately suburban rugby league in a very British way. Car parks, franchises, and meal deals—welcome to the new high street of Northern England.

If you squint Club3000 could even be Panthers. A red and yellow neon sign flickering against a matt black exterior. The colours stand up, but the symbiotic relationship does not. Club3000 cares little for grassroots footy.

In Australian rugby league terms, Wigan is Mickey Mouse. There is no postcode-sized Leagues Club, no aqua golf, no government grant for a sports and entertainment precinct, no Five-Year Plans, and no access to the famed Golden West nursery—Jai Field notwithstanding.

No wonder the NRL is paying overs for screen time at Times Square. Nothing to see here. Give Penrith the world championship already, would ya.

Another rugby league truth: at least Wigan can beat St Helens.

We see the floodlights before we see the ground. The humming glow of live sports fails to light up Robin Retail Park, but it does set the scene: it’s one thing doing it on a balmy October evening in Sydney, but can Penrith do it on a desperate Saturday night in Wigan?

Our Uber drops us on the western side of the ground, and we make our way around to our seats in the East Stand. Me, a Panthers bandwagoner from ’91. Gordo, the rare breed of Irishman who appreciates rugby of the league persuasion. Walshy, a Manly tragic. And his wife Emma, a closet Storm fan who’s become partial to a chocolate soldier. The World Club Challenge. A great way to spend a wedding anniversary.

Concrete heaped on concrete, DW Stadium is a prefab all-seater that resembles the many post-Hillsborough football stadia dotted around the country. It is a ground the Wigan Warriors share with Wigan Athletic, of once Premier League and now financial mismanagement fame. And the vibe feels more English football than Australian league. Singing minus the hooligans—league men are too hard for that—an atmosphere well worth the skinny in-goals.

We make it to Gate ES4 and squeeze through the blue steeled turnstiles. Faced with more cold concrete, we head up the stairs to the upper stand and cop a faceful of rugby league pornography.

Arousal comes in all shapes and sizes. But a privatised energy company? What can I say? When nestled between cherry and white hoops on a 90s-era polyester-cotton blend, I’m aroused—very aroused. Oh, Norweb: only sport can induce a throbbing nostalgia for selling off a national utility.

I’m getting a little hot and bothered, but thankfully, you can always count on a random Souths guy. And one glimpse of the cardinal and myrtle pours cold water on it.

We jump straight into the mixer and join a multi-purpose queue: veer right for beer and left for the pisser. We turn right, following a thirsty lad in a pink Wigan kit who turns around to suss out my Brad Drew-vintage Sanyo kit.

A Wigan Warriors fan celebrates following the Betfred World Club Challenge match at the DW Stadium, Wigan. Picture date: Saturday February 24, 2024. (Photo by Jess Hornby/PA Images via Getty Images)

Life tells me to start shitting myself. Tattooed fingers, silver chain, and shorts. Only mentalists wear shorts in this weather. But then I spot the badges—premiership pins adorn his Wigan cap. He’s a league tragic from way back.

Frothing for some Northern league chat, we dribble away as the queue shuffles forward. “This is like a grand final for me,” he tells us. “I live 10 minutes away, come to every game. Biggest game I’ve been to.”

His words embarrass me. Despite being a mad Penrith fan, I’ve treated this game as an experience, forgetting there’s a world title to be won. Thankfully, the Panthers haven’t. They’ve picked a strong team, showing they care just as much as our mate.

“Two bigguns will do me till halftime,” says our new friend as he buys a couple of 1-litre cups of Czech lager. Following his lead but not his quantity, we wish him goodbye and good luck before heading up the stairs to our seats.

The sights and smells of DW Stadium feel more Wigan Athletic than Warriors, but surveying the playing arena with 1-litre of beer in hand, I realise it couldn’t be more different. Even Thatcher knew better than divorcing beer from live rugby league.

I stop to take it all in. The night is crisp, the turf looks heavy, and the ground lit up. The picture is retro: a vista of old 90s footage remastered into fluorescent HD.

We continue up the stairs and squeeze into our seats. Made to RyanAir spec, DW Stadium’s sardined seating plan means the ground can do nothing but heave.

And heave it does, breaking into Jerusalem as the teams run out through bodgy fireworks. “It’s hostile up here”, says Gordo, and the booing of Advance Australia Fair confirms it. We can only chuckle.

The boys look the part as Nathan Cleary waits to kick off. Sleek, shiny, and skin-tight, it’s the glossy kit of a dynasty ready to grind. In contrast, Wigan’s Cherry and White hoops could have been pulled from an A-grade kit bag. Baggy, old school, and eyes-up, the makings of an underdog.

Cleary kicks left and Liam Byrne trucks a brave nut straight into the teeth of Moses Leota. Byrne vaporises as he hits Leota’s shoulder, only to reappear and play the ball immediately. I bet Byrne’s smiling as he does it, the kamikaze bastard.

But Wigan muffs the next play, and the obligatory early-game melee ensues. Penrith wins the scrum and decides to do nothing with it. A clunky set ends with debutant five-eighth Jack Cole dying on the last rather than risking the skinny in-goals. You can see Wigan lift.

The drums kick in as Wigan work it out from their own end. “Cherry and white. It’s in our blood. Ancient and loyal. Until we die,” washes over the ground, a rumbling melody alien to league down under. “Penrith hasn’t experienced anything like this,” says Gordo. My goosies agree with him.

Liam Farrell of Wigan Warriors lift the trophy following victory during the Betfred Super League Final match between Wigan Warriors v Catalans Dragons at DW Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

But the Panthers are unfazed and impose their own neutering rhythm on the game: scoot, complete, pin. Wigan is suffocated, but Penrith can’t get a tune out of their possession.

I take a fancy to the new kid. Jack Cole looks like a new model Matt Burton and his early touches demonstrate a body built for taking on the line. But as Gordo observes, he might be one step out of beat. A carry-first mentality that indicates the young half is still getting to speed with first-team footy.

And then comes a chance on Cole’s flank. He’s up to speed this time, but the pass takes time to reach him. Cole tips it on just as Isa jams in. The effort leaves his ribs exposed, and Isa duly rearranges them.

The kid’s tough and crumpled on the grass; he receives warm words of encouragement from the lad behind us. ‘Welcome to Wigan. Dickhead!’ Game on.

One more rugby league truth: never try and out grind Penrith. Throw haymakers instead.

The teams begin to trade sets, and despite Wigan’s energy, you worry for their long-term health. But then Wigan earn a penalty and, presented with meaningful ball, actually do something with it. They win a quick play the ball, and the crowd bays for them to throw a punch. They plump for a settler. Not how you beat Penrith, I think.

But what do I know? Bevan French reloads on the next play and, digging into the line, throws a ball that should see him ejected from the ex-wingers’ union. A left-to-right beauty that leaves Penrith’s new left edge redundant. Miski strolls over, and Wigan draws first blood.

Penrith keep to the plan and work on tightening the noose. But threatening sets continue to die without a kick in anger. “They’ve gotta bomb this time,” says Gordo, and sure enough, Cleary puts one up, Miski spills it, and Cleary regathers to score. Order restored.

Except no one tells Wigan. They go back to the well and again attack Penrith’s left edge on a late tackle raid. A surprise uppercut that leaves Penrith scrambling and some silky interplay between Kieghran, Miski, and Isa puts Leeming over. Premeditated or eyes up footy? Either way, it’s effective.

The Panthers are stung but go back to the grind. And in the shadows of halftime, the ball is clunked out to Dylan Edwards, who spots a lazy defender and gets under a couple of bodies to give the Riff a 12-10 lead at the break.

You feel Penrith will still have too much in the second stanza. But as they troop off the field, they appear to have lost a little of their shine, their kits now caked by the muddied turf.

The second half starts where the first left off. Penrith own the grind, but Wigan look the most likely.

Late to the party, I find myself wedged between Walshy’s arse and Gordo’s shoulder when Field grubbers for Wardle. Walshy, who managed to get up in time, is peering over the standing crowd. “What’s happened” I ask. “No f–king idea,” comes the response. I look over to the ground’s solitary video screen, which provides little help—I’ve seen bigger TVs in Sydney spare bedrooms.

The ref sends it up a try. The crowd cheers. We spend minutes looking at a pixelated Wardle rolling around near the line. No one is any the wiser. “They’re going to give this,” says Walshy. They do. The crowd is now going mental. 16-12 Wigan.

All of a sudden, things feel a little desperate. Leota and Fisher-Harris start roaming the sidelines, and despite plenty left on the clock, their re-entry does feel a little last-chance saloon. The Bash brothers join the fray and go about their business. They don’t alter the balance of power, but things start loosening a bit.

Then it opens up for Taylan May, who slides through with half the pitch to travel. Field gets on his bike and hares across in cover. May sizes him up, ignores his support, and heads for the corner. But Field beats him to it and makes a huge play, bundling May into touch.

The crowd roars. “Wake up, call that,” says a lad behind us. Wigan seems to have heard him, and the game tightens up.

But Wigan still have a joker in the pack. From a scrum on the halfway, Harry Smith switch kicks on the first. Bevan French rewinds the clock and easily wins the race to the ball. 20-12 with a kick to come. It looks rover. But the ref sends it upstairs. Everyone again squints at the tiny screen. He looks onside to me. Thankfully, the video ref has a better view and calls him off.

Penrith turn up the heat and begin to missile out of the line. The crowd is screaming, “Get ’em onside, ref”—see, rugby league has a global language, after all. Mitch Kenny then makes a play, stripping the ball as two Panthers drop off the tackle. He charges forward, and Penrith smell blood. But the referee deems it illegal.

I find myself standing up and shouting, “Learn the f–king rules, ref.” I now care. This is bullshit. I sit back down and ask the father and son behind him if 1-on-1s are a thing up here. “Used to be”, replies the son. “But then I got penalised for that last week. So who knows.”

Looks like I’m in the wrong. “Apologise to the ref’ chirps Gordo. I do. No one around me cares. They’re all too focused on the next set.

The lad in front of us starts screaming on repeat. “Keary, Keary, watch Keary.” A Wigan homage to Walkers on. But neither Keary nor Cleary appears to have any answers. Penrith are too sideways, and having gone right, the ball finds its way to Peachey on the left. With little room and even less time, Peachey slips, slides, and stays in the field of play. Bodies pile up in the in-goal, with Peachey somewhere amongst them.

Back to the video ref, back to the tiny screen, back to everyone standing, squinting, waiting. “You think he’s got it down,” I ask the father and son behind me. They shrug. The wait continues. Then, slowly, the Penrith players begin to slump to their knees, the look of the resigned.

A few seconds later, the ref confirms it. No try, no time, no dynasty. The crowd is limbs, celebrating a victory they helped create. Old mate Keary kisses his missus and is then Jason Taylored by a flying pint from the top of the stands. He turns and glares straight at Emma, innocently standing in a ’91 DahDahs kit. Emma points a few rows back. Keary pauses, ponders, and then goes back to pashing his missus.

We turn to leave, congratulating the father and son on our way out. Simply the Best starts blaring across the ground as we reach the bottom of the stairs.

I look out onto the pitch. Brad O’Neill swaps jerseys with Mitch Kenny, peeling Kenny’s kit from his torso. They trade places. Kenny stands in the baggy cherry and white while O’Neill drapes the dynastic black, green, yellow, and red over his shoulder. Wigan has out-grinded, out-thought, and out-played a dynasty. World champions, indeed.

I head for a slash while Tina serenades the victors. The toilets hold the durried scent of a pre-smoking ban pokie room. Everyone’s singing along as they tinkle.

You’re simply the best.
Better than all the rest.
Better than anyone.
Anyone I’ve ever met.

And then a broad Aussie accent breaks the chorus. ‘Except bloody Parra.’ Never change, rugby league.

Last rugby league truth: we’re a game rife with contradictions. We crave black and white but revel in the grey.

We walk out of the stadium and straight into a heavy Northern fog. As far as atmospheric conditions go, it feels fitting.

I imagine rugby league being born down the road under similar skies. The George Hotel, another now defunct rugby league landmark, another piece of our history waiting to become a Raddison hotel.

At The George, a market was created to let leaguies play league. A market built to compensate, not scale. But scale league did, attaching itself to a very specific kind of tribe—a provincial base that means growth doesn’t always need expansion.

The world might not care about rugby league, but there are enough places that do. A global audience for a provincial game that deserves to be celebrated under the bright lights of Vegas, whether the Yanks pay attention or not.

You might be thinking: it’s like I don’t care about finance. But finance also doesn’t care about me. Or you. Or rugby league. Until it does. And then we become another car park in the sports-industrial complex. And there’s nothing tribal about a car park.

Through the mist comes the familiar sounds of a blue. The air clears, and we spot a young lad in a Penrith jersey shoving another kid in civvies. We watch on as their friends try to separate them. It looks harmless. More posturing than punch-on. And then we catch their accents: distinctly Northern, all of them.

Two Northern lads throwing handbags over the humbling of a dynasty from the foot of the mountains.

Rugby league, perfectly global, thank you very much.

Shout out: if you’ve waded through my dribble and want to learn more about the game up north, head to the brilliant Rugby League Digest podcast and listen to their interviews with Anthony Broxton. Cracking content that has inspired much of the above.

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