To celebrate 25 seasons of Super League, Eddie Hemmings joined Sky Sports News to look back on the first match and how the competition has evolved since 1996.
Hemmings, Sky Sports’ long-serving ‘voice of rugby league’, was in the commentary box with Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson for the opening game of the sport’s summer era between Paris Saint-Germain and Sheffield Eagles in March 1996.
Here are his memories on that night at Stade Charlety, the impact the video referee has had on Super League and his thoughts on expansion…
The first game
The Super League era began with a bang as newcomers Paris Saint-Germain kicked off with a 30-24 victory over Sheffield at Stade Charlety in front of over 17,000 fans.
That first year of summer rugby league got underway barely one month after the final winter campaign had concluded, with Hemmings and Stevo flying to Paris for opening night.
Looking back, it remains a memorable occasion for the man who commentated on rugby league for Sky Sports from 1990 to 2019.
“The shortened winter season had just finished, Wigan had been crowned champions for the seventh time in and row, and then we boarded a plane and were off to Paris,” Hemmings said.
Everyone said ‘rugby league in Paris? It’ll never work!’, but my word it did
“Everyone said ‘rugby league in Paris? It’ll never work!’, but my word it did.
“There were over 17,000 there that night and Paris Saint-Germain beat Sheffield Eagles. It was a great game and a great occasion.”
The impact of the video ref
The new era of rugby league brought with it an innovation which would have a huge impact on the sport and continues to generate debate to this day in the video referee.
It was first called into action during the clash between PSG and Sheffield to adjudicated on whether Fred Banquet had scored for the home side, with referee Stuart Cummings utilising the new technology on several occasions that evening.
The video referee has now become a mainstay of top-flight rugby league in the UK and Australia, with replay technology to aid officials being utilised across a wide variety of sports as well, and Hemmings believes it has, overall, had a positive impact.
“To start with they were all scratching their heads, but the big thing we also did was put the big screen in all of the stadiums so the people in the stadiums were part and parcel of the decision the video referee was taking,” Hemmings said.
“In football, they just put a graphic up saying the VAR decision is pending and I think that loses it a little bit. The big thing is, in rugby league they have a natural pause where the game stops because a try has been scored or not scored and the decision can then come.
“It has developed into what it is today and I firmly believe we were trailblazers that night. I’m not going to say it has worked seamlessly, because there has been controversy, but the video referee has certainly worked for rugby league.”
I’m not going to say it has worked seamlessly, because there has been controversy, but the video referee has certainly worked for rugby league
Super League’s expansion dreams
When Super League kicked off, there were predictions of teams across other major European cities joining those from the sport’s traditional heartlands in the competition along with Paris Saint-Germain.
Those predictions did not come to pass, however, and the PSG club folded at the end of the 1997 season. Yet there is an established French presence in the league now in the form of Perpignan-based Catalans Dragons.
Welsh side Celtic Crusaders have come and gone as well during the past 25 seasons, but the sport is looking to North America with Toronto Wolfpack earning promotion to Super League for 2020 and more teams showing an interest in joining the British professional set-up.
“Rugby league has been faced with major problems from its inception in 1895, it’s a sport which has innovated and certainly never been afraid to experiment,” Hemmings said.
“It certainly did experiment in 1996, the money from News Corporation helped and there was a lot of money thrown at Super League on both sides of the world.
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