A Fair Outcome

19th August 2021

On 19th August 1961, I attended my first live sports event. I sat on my father’s shoulders at the back of the stand at the Parkside stadium in the industrial heart of south Leeds for the Northern Rugby League encounter between Hunslet and Whitehaven. The Preface to An Ordinary Spectator describes my recollection of the 6 year-old’s experience: “The rain pours down. But I do not care. I am hooked… on the experience of the sporting event, viewed live and in the flesh”.

It was 60 years ago today.

The Hunslet RLFC has played its home fixtures at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton since 1995 and it was a visit there last month – for the Hunslet versus Keighley Cougars fixture – that I thought would be appropriate to mark the anniversary. More on that below.

60 years is a long time in any sport. In 1961, the Northern Rugby League comprised a single division of 30 teams, of which 16 were in Yorkshire, 12 in Lancashire and 2 in Cumberland. (This was before the major local government re-organisation of the 1970s, of course). Three of those clubs have folded (Bramley, Blackpool Borough and Liverpool City) and whilst others have come and gone in the meantime – Carlisle, Kent Invicta, Mansfield Marksmen et al – there are currently 36 teams in the three divisions of full-time and/or semi-professional British rugby league.

The geographical spread across the divisions is now more extensive with two clubs in each of France, Wales and London and other sides in Sheffield, Newcastle and Coventry. However, there has been a marked widening of the gap between rich and poor: at the extreme, between the wealth and resources that now underpin some of the Super League clubs such as Leeds and St Helens and the fragile existence of those at the lower end of League 1 (the third tier) that are reliant of attendances of a couple of hundred spectators and the determined efforts of local volunteers.

I couldn’t resist looking at the rank order of the 30 clubs in the 1961-62 season (as determined by the end-of-season league table, given that August marked the beginning of the campaign) and the 36 clubs of the present day (as given by the league tables following last weekend’s matches). Interestingly, of the current 12 Super League teams, only 7 finished in the top dozen of 60 years ago. Those that have now risen into the elite group are the Warrington Wolves, Hull FC, Salford Red Devils, Leigh Centurions and – of course – the Catalan Dragons, whilst the clubs that have fallen out of the old Top 12 are Featherstone Rovers, Widnes, Oldham, Swinton and Workington Town, the last of these by no fewer than 22 places.

For the statistically minded, it is possible to undertake a more formal analysis of the rank orders of the clubs in the two years (1961-62 and 2021) in order to examine whether there is a relationship between them. To do this, one can look at the two sets of ranks of the 27 clubs (or their successors in cases such as Hunslet and Bradford Northern/Bradford Bulls) that have survived since 1961 in order to calculate Spearman’s Rank Correlation Co-efficient. (Charles Spearman, 1863-1945, was an English statistician and psychologist).

The range of possibilities for the Co-efficient lies between +1 (a perfect positive correlation) and -1 (a perfect negative correlation) and, by examining how far the figure is from zero for a given sample size – our sample is 27 – we are testing the “null hypothesis” that there is no correlation in the two rank orders.

In our case, the figure is +0.48. In other words, notwithstanding the shifts in fortune noted above, the clubs in the higher/middle/lower parts of the spectrum in 1961 tend also to be found in broadly the same positions today. Examples include Wigan (1st in 1961, currently 3rd), Halifax (14th and 13th) and Doncaster (26th and 24th). The positive figure is perhaps not surprising – I think I might have expected it to have been somewhat higher – and it allows the statistician to reject the null hypothesis in favour of the conclusion that there is a “moderate positive” correlation.

And so – our heads suitably cleared – to the immediate matter at hand: Hunslet vs Keighley in League 1. At the start of play, only one point separated the fourth-placed visitors from their seventh-placed hosts in the 10-team league table, although both teams were some distance from the competition’s then pacesetters, Barrow. For Hunslet, it was a match of some significance as, in the previous month, they had not only lost their previous three games – which included an embarrassing collapse against the lowly-ranked Coventry Bears – but had parted company with their coach and then seen the resignation of the club chairman (although the latter decision has subsequently been reversed).

I watched the game in the company of Peter Todd, the former General Manager of the Hunslet club. He has a deep knowledge of rugby league, not only of the backgrounds of many of the players in action directly in front of us, but of the sport’s history and its former participants. At various times, our conversation referenced an eclectic list of ex-professionals – Ken Rollin of Wakefield Trinity and Leeds, Colin Tyrer of Leigh and Wigan, Chris Joynt of St Helens – as well as covering current issues affecting the game, notably the decisions of the rugby league authorities in Australia and New Zealand not to participate in the (subsequently postponed) 2021 Rugby League World Cup. It was a very pleasant afternoon.

On the pitch, the teams were evenly matched. Keighley scored an early try and then, after half an hour, a second one to give them a 10-0 lead. However, Hunslet recovered well in the period before half-time and two short-range charges from the powerful prop forward, Jordan Andrade, produced a 12-10 interval lead. This had been extended to 20-10 until five minutes before the end, at which point the game looked secure for the home side. Not so. Two late Keighley tries, one of which was converted, produced a final score of 20-20.

Had this been a Super League fixture, there would have been “Golden Point” extra time, in which the teams played on until a winning score was achieved. However, in League 1, this does not occur: a drawn match is considered a legitimate result. And quite right too. Hunslet and Keighley had produced a whole-hearted and entertaining encounter that had swung back and forth. After 80 minutes play on a hot afternoon, there was nothing to separate them and both sides were out on their feet. The division of the spoils was a fair outcome.

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