THE BIG ISSUE: #29

By STEVE MASCORD
SO this is the off-season, and what have you done?
It’s as predictable as a Mad Monday atrocity that columns like this will pop up about now, trying to sum up where rugby league finds itself, some 117 years on from that little drink at the George where we all decided we’d had enough of those stuffy buggers at Twickenham. But despite the predictability factor, we’re going have a go anyway.
Certainly, the health of rugby league depends very much on where you are looking from. In NSW, Queensland and – we’ve got to say – Melbourne, there is every reason to puff out our chests and bound into spring with limitless optimism.
A good little barometer of the (apparently) rude health of the game is the rugby league museum. It was all set to open in 1994, with Illawarra legend Michael Boltsequestered in The Rocks to be its first curator. Then the Super League War happened, the money was redirected into players’ pockets and Bolter went back to Wollongong.
This year, almost 20 years on, the museum finally opened in Rugby League Central. It’s a powerful metaphor for recovery. We have finally picked up where we left off in 1994, when rugby league was flying so high in this part of the world that even rugby union in New Zealand was under threat.
The biggest symbol of this is, of course, the $1.025 billion TV deal. This is such a huge amount of money that at least four times my fingers have refuse to believe it and typed “million” by mistake. It’s $1,025,000,000 folks! That’s a lot of beer and pizza.
But I fear the big story of 2013 will be the people who have promised us that money, Channel Nine. The financial pages indicate they (and Newcastle Knights owner Nathan Tinkler for that matter) have plenty of financial problems. The Knights have a bank guarantee – where would the game be if Nine was not able to fulfil its obligations?
The previous administration of the NRL – under David Gallop – deserves more than half the credit for the work it did to secure the deal. The Commission itself hasn’t really given us much of a glimpse of its personality yet.
It changed the finals system, said it wasn’t too happy with referees or the Bulldogs on Mad Monday … but seven months on still seems to be getting its head around the myriad issues involved in the sport. There’s lots of dray powder at Moore Park still. Not insisting on live TV coverage seems a bit expedient.
At the time of writing, radio and digital rights were still pending. Let’s hope supporters can buy a season pass to their favourite team and watch every game online, as overseas sports fans can. Speaking of overseas, the offical online streaming service is a mess with fans buying one thing and getting another. This must be fixed.
The ARLC also has a few battles to fight with the players. The RLPA under Dave Garnsey will get stronger and they don’t like the way Origins were pencilled in for mid-week without them being consulted.
The Commission also brought in some new media regulations this year. Public affairs manager John Brady’s opposition to these for many years, on the basis that if they came in some clubs would only do the bare minimum, was in many cases proven correct. After a thawing in relations between players and the media over the past five years, Mad Monday at Belmore put things back to square one.
Internationally, things have arguably never been healthier.
Your correspondent saw Cook Islands play Lebanon two weekends ago, Australia take on New Zealand last Saturday and this weekend he’ll be in Bangkok for Thailand v the Philippines. Then it’s the United States against a Queensland Indigenous side before the final two games of the triangular series in the UK.
The World Cup draw for next year is already out and organisers are confidently predicting hundreds of thousands of spectators for the tournament. There is talk of a new elite comp in France.
Yes, there are challenges. England were forced to stay home this (southern) spring, Italy pulled out of a European Cup sponsored by Alitalia and the game remains divided in the United States.
It would be great if the RLIF was better resourced and could offer blanket sponsorship and television opportunities. At first, Tweeted questions about the Cooks-Cedars game being on television seemed naive. But NSW Cup and Toyota Cup are on tele and not internationals? It’s not a dumb question at all.
But, as I keep saying, volunteers trying to start our sport in new territory are the true heroes of rugby league and deserve all our support.
The place where our game seems to be facing its biggest challenges are in its birthplace, the UK. We all know about the Stobart naming rights deal, which was brought to a premature end. Bradford survived closure by the skin of its teeth. There are whispers of other clubs being in severe debt. The Autumn Internationals don’t look like engaging many people and the Exiles concept looked tired in only its second year.
But the cuts at the BBC which were expected to severely restrict rugby league coverage don’t look like doing so at all now. Attendances are up, Sky is still on board, the Super League grand final was a wonderful spectacle and plenty of people from outside the game – from Bradley Wiggins and Rio Ferdinand down – are lining up to sing its praises.
The game below Super League grows apace. Melbourne Storm can only dream of the success in junior development that the south of England has enjoyed.
Even in England, things can only get better and look like doing so.
So many times since 1895, our sport has appeared on the cusp of a golden era only to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. First World War, Depression, Vichy government, international transfer ban, Super League War, correspondence that went unanswered, opportunites that went untaken, thuggery that went unchecked.
Here we are, despite all that, on the cusp again. Selfishness and greed are, as always, just a step behind us and gaining. They are always clearly visible in the rear view mirror, our own personal grim reapers.
Can we not only outrun them but actually put some distance on them this time, with more fuel in our tank than ever before?
Another year over, a new one just begun.

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