By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN News Corporation gave up its first and last rights over NRL satellite TV, we heard the expression that rugby league was “in control of its own destiny”.
The decision to surrender those rights supposedly cost Rupert Murdoch’s righthand man in Australia, Kim Williams, his job.
We had heard the same thing when News stopped being a half-owner of the game in Australia.
Yet we still had games being shown on delay, in low definition, on Channel Nine. We still had the Fox Sunday games kicking off at 2pm so they could be over before Nine’s delayed telecast started at four.
It didn’t feel like rugby league was in charge of much at all. At least not the NRL, which still seemed to be run for the sake of the broadcasters.
In England, the recent Baskerville Shield series was a success with good crowds – but the days of three Tests being played at Wembley, Old Trafford and Elland Road seem long gone.
With new streaming opportunities, British rugby league also believes it has “control of its own destiny”. But what does that actually mean?
Put another way, if you were rugby league, what would your New Years Resolutions be? Let’s have a shot.
A WORLD NINES CIRCUIT
IT was interesting that the recent RLIF strategic plan, ‘World Rugby Nines’ got a mention. Given that rugby union don’t play nine-a-side, perhaps we are about to make an attempt to reclaim that word that makes up half of our name. Semantics aside, we’ve now been talking about an off-season circuit for long enough to have acted upon it. The blueprint is already there – rugby union sevens. We use second tier players and those who are recently retired or off-contract. The developing nations pick their best and the games are therefore competitive. I am sure Duco Events, the smart people behind the NRL Nines, would love to be involved. Maybe the first year there are only two or three events – Abu Dhabi, Perth and Las Vegas – but it builds. And the beauty of it is that we use our other properties to leverage nines carnivals “You want an NRL match? An Origin? Let’s see how you go with a Nines tournament first”. As Hot Chocolate said, everyone’s a winner!
GIVE THE RLIF MORE AUTHORITY
THE appointment of the RLIF’s first full-time CEO was another milestone for the game – and we can’t expect miracles from David Collier overnight. But the spectacle of Super League CEO Blake Solly trying to get the first Anglo-New Zealand Test on Australian television a few hours before kick-off, and the feudal nature of refereeing appointments for those games, were rather unedifying. There are two countries with power in international rugby league – Australia and Britain. And if the Australians have little appetite for that side of the game, then there is a danger of the RLIF office being dominated by the country in which it resides. A real RLIF with teeth would be able to censure the RFL, something which is hard to imagine under current circumstances. Get rid of bilateral Test series completely. Have them run by the RLIF, with profits passed onto the countries involved as required. We need something more than a front for government funding.
FIX THE NEW END-OF-SEASON SCHEDULE
JAMES Lowes complained that The Qualifiers put too much pressure on his part-time players in one game but isn’t that what professional sport is all about? Most of our leagues worldwide have a final rather than handing out trophies on a first-past-the-post basis. The real problem with the new system in the UK in 2015 was that clubs were able to stockpile their teams at the end of the season, employing the same degree of cynicism that always swarmed around promotion and relegation like flies at a litter bin. The Super League teams absolutely should not get stronger when they are about to play opposition that was already spending less money. You would not be able to sign a whole new squad of players for the NRL semi-finals, would you? The bottom of the top division was also a little ho-hum for the tail end of the season, wasn’t it? Solutions on a postcard, please.
A CEASE-FIRE BETWEEN PLAYERS AND AUSTRALIAN AUTHORITIES
THREATS of awards night boycotts and even industrial action are almost annual events these days in Australia, where players complain they are overworked. Never mind that those in Super League play 10 more games a year. The NRL agreed to a 25-game schedule, still with five-day turnarounds, without consulting them and now the RLPA has hired a high-powered AFL man as its new CEO. In Australia, rugby league is a grab for cash. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is … well, it’s not an agreement at all. When the NRL tried to mandate a 30-game season for all players, the players mocked Shane Richardson for trying to help them. A few months later, they’re screaming the house down because the season’s too long. Any cease-fire is certain to be temporary.
SEPARATE ORIGIN AUSTRALIAN SELECTION FROM ORIGIN
THE old school coaches and administrators Down Under are scared. While many other attempts to modernise and streamline the competition structures and representative programme have been greeted with enthusiasm, the simple measure of not requiring all Origin players to commit themselves to Australia has been greeted like it’s a heresy. It works like this: the RLIF does not recognise State of Origin in any way. It’s only Australia that requires dual-eligible players like Aquila Uate, James Tamou and Aiden Guerra to swear allegiance to the green and gold before they don maroon or blue. This allows Australia to retain players using the $30,000 per game appearance fee. You cannot play Origin unless you lived in NSW or Queensland before the age of 13 but international selection criteria, across all sports, are far less stringent. The solution is simple: let Origin players represent any (maybe just tier two) country for which they properly qualify. Those who fear this either don’t understand it or want Australia to have an unfair leg-up.
SUPER LEAGUE SHOULD PUSH INTO THE AUSTRALIAN MARKET
BETWEEN 20,000 and 40,000 people get up at 5am in Australia to watch Super League. The vast majority of them know nothing about this magazine. They don’t know who Blake Solly is. They have no idea there are podcasts, radio programmes and sponsors of Super League trying to reach them. While the denizens of Salford Quays struggle to get national mainstream media attention – the midweek papers are increasingly devoid of rugby league – there is an insatiable hunger for the game Down Under. The most gambled-upon Super League game of the year is the 1pm match on Magic Weekend – because Australian fans have just finished watching Super Saturday on Fox. Super League should play more matches in this time slot and work more closely with their Fox in Australia so the matches are mentioned during NRL broadcasts and other rugby league programmes are not put up in competition with them. Super League should open an office in Sydney and Super League clubs could even sell perimeter advertising to Australian companies, as happens in soccer with overseas sponsors.
STAND UP TO OTHER SPORTS
WE’VE been warning for as long as we can remember that if rugby league did not get off its backside it would be swamped by other sports. When Sam Burgess can walk out and try international rugby union on for size, when the Dally M medallist is happy to train with an NFL team rather than play our sport, when Sonny Bill Williams can go from Allianz Stadium to Soldier Field and Twickenham in a matter of weeks, when Tom Burgess can trial for an NFL contract while he is under contract with South Sydney, you know the warning has come true. We are, globally, second division and trying to avoid further relegation. We need to stand up for ourselves in places like Dubai, where the local rugby union authorities want to run league comps and – so far – the RLIF seems to be appeasing them. We’re under siege. The barricades need manning.
REAL CULTURAL CHANGE
READ the letters page of any rugby league publication. Talk to clubs and players and administrators and media people. No-one is happy, everyone is moaning. Being a ‘working class game’ is what’s great about rugby league – but it’s perhaps also a big part of what’s wrong with it. In order to progress, the game needs to learn from its rivals, to embrace the ‘big end of town’, to leave behind the bogans and whippets. If you want violence, go watch extreme sports. If you only want to make money out of the game, we’re not giving you any. If you want to start a rebel league, start one. If you want to abuse referees, don’t come back. If you want to stay in suburban grounds, we’ll be at the big ones with corporate boxes and decent toilets. See you. We’ll take the hit. Someone needs to grab rugby league by the scruff of the neck, drag it out of what sometimes seems like a ghetto, and damn the consequences. The alternatives are obscurity and irrelevance. And if that person pays with his job, like David Smith did, we’ll just wait patiently until the next messiah comes along.
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD