The century-long love affair with the game is the subject of a new play by Bradford-based Mick Martin, whose latest work unravels the turbulent birth of rugby league against the industrial backdrop of class divide.
Broken Time – which makes a stop at Theatre Royal Wakefield later this month – takes the factual events of 1895, where teams in Yorkshire and Lancashire formed their own faction to break away from the rugby union in the battle for pay, and transplants it in the fictional town of West Broughton.
Mick said: “My life-long love of rugby was a huge inspiration for the play but so was the birth of rugby league. I hadn’t realised the extent to which they call rugby league the ‘people’s league’. It was borne out of getting club emancipation.”
The writer explains how rugby became so popular in Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 1880s that the centre for the sport moved up north.
Bitter rugby union bosses attempted to stop players – who tended to be pit workers, weavers and factory staff – being paid for ‘broken time’, ie, the working hours they spent on the pitch.
Mick said: “People were poor at that time so if the rugby union banned any form of payment for taking time off to play, they couldn’t afford the time off. It meant all the Yorkshire and Lancashire teams had no option but to hive off and form a northern union.
“It’s more than a story about just rugby, what we have is a play about a town and how the club is the heartbeat of the town, which is true of places like Castleford and Featherstone.
“It’s about how the club is the centre of everything. It’s that community feeling, that’s what make it special. It’s something I really wanted to weave in.”
The plot focuses mainly on Lewy Jenkins, rugby’s answer to David Beckham circa 1890, and his love interest, music hall star Bessie Butterworth.
But at its heart is the fight between amateurism and professionalism and the passion for players’ rights.
Mick said: “It’s about power and money and control. Team sport is something that everyone in this country is fascinated with.
“In the 1880s the players were stars, they were earning good money, 10,000 people were in the crowd, players were being pinched from one club to another, the supporters were staging pitch invasions and the club owners were desperate to have the best team to keep the punters happy.
“These things are just as relevant today. There’s so many aspects in the play that when you look at the relationships between players and clubs that you realise rugby league is not so different now – the players like to earn as much as they can and are traded freely by clubs.
“It’s a really modern story.”
The two-act play is cast with just eight people – all of whom take part in singing, playing brass instruments and choreographed rugby sequences inspired by a real-life training session in ball skills and technical drills with Wakefield Wildcats.
Mick is quick to point out the performance is not just for rugby fans.
He said: “It’s a really complex story and it’s very funny. The script is peppered with brilliant one-liners.
“It’s a serious subject but it’s like anything else, it’s not all heavy politics, if you imagine the banter of a rugby league dressing room we’ve kept that sparkle.
“It promises to be a really great night out. It’s really not just for rugby fans, there’s a lot of emotional relationships there.
“I wouldn’t categorise it as a rugby play, it’s a drama about our shared history, about the history of this part of of the world. We have to stand up that, no-one else will!”
Broken Time runs from September 21 to 24. Tickets are available at www.theatreroyalwakefield.co.uk or by calling box office on 01924 211311.
The Guide and Theatre Royal Wakefield have teamed up to give away tickets to see Broken Time. To enter answer the following question:
In what year did Castleford Tigers last win the Challenge Cup?
Send your answer on a postcard to Broken Time Compeititon, Pontefract and Castleford Express, 1 Front Street, Pontefract, WF8 1BL, by Friday September 9. Usual competition rules apply.