I’m delighted to provide another guest slot this week and once again, the subject is rugby league. Although never having played the game (far too soft!) it is a game I have watched over the years especially each time Australia come across to whip us.
Whilst we’ve closed the gap on the old enemy at cricket and rugby union, it seems we still lag miles behind at rugby league. Equally, as rugby union has grown into an international money machine, league has become a poor relation.
Recently, England played Fiji at Twickenham and estimates as to what the game grossed were around £10m. If England played Fiji at rugby league they would be lucky to fill Dudley Hill Amateurs up the road.
In an age of globalisation, sport cannot escape. My old mate Frank has been involved in the game for decades and is a respected voice. Here he makes a case why the governing body are so out of touch and why the game is in decline.
The Death of English Rugby League
If you have known me for any length of time, you will know that years ago I was the first to predict the financial implosion and mass death of rugby league clubs that is now a reality.
I wrote about how The Rugby Football Union (RFU) was swamping our game in its so called heartlands. At the same time, people scoffed about the smaller crowds union were getting suggesting they would never match Super League crowds.
I pointed out the made-up participation figures – the “alternative facts” that The Rugby Football League (RFL) were so proud to boast about – and the loss of central funding that came as a result.
People scorned as I exposed the broadcasting deals the RFL were trumping, with the hyped increases in funding not even in line with inflation. I warned about how the lack of expansion was killing both broadcasters and sponsors interest in the game.
I predicted that eventually youngsters who wanted to play “Rugby” would stop wanting to represent their little Northern town when they could set their sights much higher in other competitions.
Over time rugby league supporters in England knew I wasn’t spinning them like the RFL and their media supporters continue to do so. I care about the game from its grassroots up and I’ve served my time.
I can’t help but be bemused by RFL suits who think their opinions matter to the rest of the rugby league playing world. If English administrators can’t even keep the game in England from dying, why should anyone follow any of the advice they seem so ready to hand out to the rest of the game?
Recently, the owner of Leeds Rhinos, Gary Hetherington, attacked Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) clubs for not taking the World Club Challenge seriously. They claimed the NRL administration was weak for not forcing clubs to take part in a series that no one outside of Northern England cares about.
You cannot expect NRL clubs to ruin their pre-season flying to the other side of the world to play what amounts to trial games in conditions they will not face again all year, against opposition they will learn nothing from.
This contrived event is set up to try offer an illusion that our domestic competition is strong despite regular reminders on the international stage that this is woefully not the case.
The NRL sides arrive barely free of jet-lag to play for a trophy they do not care about and then head back home with a few dollars to begin the real work.
Back in the NRL Premiership await ruthless opponents who will walk over their jet-lagged corpses without a second thought. At what point does any of that seem like something any clubs would be interested in?
The World Club Challenge is a contrived, money-grabbing exercise with the absurdity of a World Champion tag at the end of it that all who know best, realise is meaningless. It is absolutely ridiculous.
The Ostrich Mentality
I have no doubt there will be plenty of people in England that will have opposing views, hoping against all hope that we really do have a competitive professional game and not just a winter filler for Murdoch.
Sadly, few outside of northern England care and many die-hards know the brutal truth. English officials can go to their favourite journo’s and spew bullshit all day. None of it has any effect.
The wider English media doesn’t carry what they say. Hetherington might feel important when he talks to other English officials running small, dying clubs and organisations, but in the grand scheme of things, on Rugby League’s world stage, his opinions carry no weight.
If you ran a business and someone that ran a much smaller business which was on its last legs came along and started to give you advice, would you listen to them?
Back In 1895
If the RFL had any brains at all, they’d stop looking for quick fixes and outside help; they would try to help themselves.
Any competition that relies on the bulk of its content to come from small towns is going to fail in the long run. Broadcasters and sponsors do not want small towns, they want big population bases they can sell to.
Super League needs London, Toronto, Toulouse, Paris, Barcelona; it will not be saved by exhibition matches masquerading as a World Championship.
Either Super League really is super, or it’s just a relic from the past. A regional competition that is going nowhere. This is not 1895; representing a small town and being popular at the local pub isn’t every boys dream any more.
For all the people that get fired up when St Helens plays Wigan or when Wakefield takes on Castleford, there are far more people who just could not give a shit.
Selling The Future
The survival of Rugby League in England is about making those people give a shit about the contests on offer. It’s about making them buy in, giving them something to be interested in, giving them something to aspire to.
When a town in northern England takes on a suburb of Sydney, don’t be shocked when no one really gives a shit. If we don’t care about it in Australia, what are the chances someone in London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Paris, Barcelona, Toronto or Toulouse even takes notice?
The RFL’s failure is not something you can blame on disinterested NRL clubs. There are no quick fixes to save the English game. Exhibition matches that merely serve to balance stretched budgets of the RFL and clubs.
If only the likes of Gary Hetherington were as passionate about saving English Rugby League from dying as they are to turn a quick buck on the back of visits by NRL clubs once a year.