But anyway, instead I chose to watch St George-Illawarra Dragons versus West Tigers in an essentially meaningless NRL encounter (neither side can make the play-offs and are instead building for next season). But the irony of these participants and also the setting (the game was played at Sydney Cricket Ground to mark the 50th anniversary of the epic Grand Final encounter between the now defunct stand-alone sides St George and Western Suburbs) was certainly not lost on me. St George-Illawarra and Wests, you see, are the 2 NRL sides formed by enforced merger in the late 1990s when the NRL stuck to its guns of denying franchises to former giants who no longer had the financial resources or fanbases to grace their elite competition in the modern era and even had the bottle to defend lawsuits (and win) from a few such disgruntled teams. In swallowing up the expansion Illawarra Steelers, the famous St George club came out relatively unscathed but nonetheless necessarily bolstered. Illawarra, meanwhile, still maintain their NRL presence and get a bunch of home games per season. Western Suburbs and Balmain Tigers both had to compromise heavily in a rough 50-50 split, however, and the new club has homes both in West Sydney and slightly further afield in Balmain. But of course yesterday they took to the field in the old Western Suburbs colours (with just a very subtle orange flash to the shoulders and shorts - the Balmain touch) and the commentary team made numerous mentions of the famous old "Magpies" sides of yore. Right here is the perfect amalgamation of modernity and history in professional sport. We respect and honour what went before but we move on, if needed. This is the NRL way. The Super League way would be to allow the 4 historical sides to chug away from one financial crisis to the next, scratching our heads as to why they cannot develop and retain calibre youngsters and challenge for major honours, in front of ever dwindling crowds (most likely blaming "management failures", which implies that Featherstone could be Leeds if they just had the right man or woman at the helm and, you know, "really wanted it enough").
And despite both sides having 6-15 records, they served up a high-octane, high quality encounter showcasing the incredible depth of the league. Wests fielded their new half back prodigy Luke Brooks, who had a stormer on "day-boo" (that's debut to non Aussies) and won fairly comfortably. And here's an important point: part of the reason I'm told our rugby league and soccer leagues are better than the Aussie or US franchised leagues is because we have no meaningless games. With the relegation trapdoor hovering over the Dragons and the Tigers, you see, this game would apparently have more bite and intensity and further pack the crowds in. A hugely flawed argument. With the relegation trapdoor hovering, Wests would almost certainly not blood Brooks, instead opting for a more reliable veteran out of fear of the unknown and in the thrall of such high, debilitating stakes. Furthermore, their franchise player - the brilliant hooker Robbie Farah (absent through injury yesterday) - would almost certainly be gone, along with brilliant young outside flyers Nofoaluma and Simona, most likely to Brisbane or one of the bigger Sydney sides, gleefully feasting - as our elite soccer and rugby league sides do every off season - on the lower placed sides' carcasses. "Know your place. You have done well but these boys are ready for the big league now. Here's some scraps of cash to soften the subservient pointlessness of your situation". The same goes for St George-Illawarra's elite core of Morris, Dugan and Merrin (the latter 2 also missing through injury yesterday). And as for Gareth Widdop siging on for next season? Fuhgeddaboutit. Because that is the NRL way, and in this fictitious Australian scenario the NRL way does not exist.
So this was a great game on many levels. And by contrast, the supposedly elite Wigan and Hull final (OK OK I did drop in on occasion, I'm human you know) served up an absolute stinker. The line speed was ponderous and even accounting for the wet conditions, the handling by both sides (but especially Hull) truly atrocious. I used to be a keen advocate of Super League (a name we inherited from a failed Aussie venture, ironically, despite our often sneering superiority over them) but having watched just a couple of months of NRL I simply couldn't go back to it. The exciting Sam Tomkins scored a late try for Wigan and will almost certainly leave for NRL at the end of the season, where for my money he may even struggle. The NRL is awash with exceptional full backs and Tomkins - not especially fresh-faced in the young man's Aussie league - is still learning this position. But that isn't the point. What is the point is that the RFL have precisely no plan for the sport in this country beyond bringing historic smaller sides back into the fold and hoping that it can magically become 1950 again. So when the league's calibre players inevitably depart for NRL (with its TV deal and salary cap perpetually on the rise thanks to its increasingly widespread popularity) or the equally clueless but at least cash-rich rugby union - which they are already doing left, right and centre - their only get out will be to throw cash at them via yet another opaque salary cap exemption to keep them on the same tiny bunch of elite teams. You then figure out the rest but some clues: blowout scores, lower crowds, less commercial appeal, financial instability. Super League currently does not even have a main sponsor. I will admit that I wanted yesterday's game to be a tepid, lopsided affair (which gives me no pleasure me but I make no apologies for my disdain and disrespect of the RFL and in particular its new chief Brian Barwick) and I got my wish.
Later yesterday - being currently hooked on NRL to a degree that you could call commendable or worrying, depending on your position - I watched Gold Coast Titans versus New Zealand Warriors and saw the Warriors edge a classic 24-22, with several looks needed at Kevin Gordon's last gasp chalked off touch down via the big screen to deny the Titans a late miracle win - the kind of teeth-gnashing sporting drama that as far as I am concerned only rugby league can provide. This game mattered in every sense (as nearly all NRL games do) with both sides on the fringe of the play-off 8 with games running out. And again there is irony. These are 2 of 4 expansion sides in the NRL (Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys being the other 2) with 2 more (probably Perth and Brisbane Mk II but others are in the mix) rumoured to be not far down the line. The Warriors have a big fan base, the Titans slightly less so (they've only been around in their current guise since 2007 and I guess there is other stuff to do on Australia's beautiful East coast) but unlike with London in Super League, fan dissent and antipathy towards them is marginal. And more importantly, the NRL will give them every chance to succeed. They back them with the salary cap and a franchise (no relegation threat - are you getting this, Barwick?) and there was a good crowd at the magnificent Skilled Park yesterday. And as long as the likes of State of Origin studs Nate Myles and Greg Bird pull on their natty Adidas strip (not to mention the increasingly impressive Gordon and the Dally M Medal contender Jamal Idris), they are a serious, credible player that add value to this league. By contrast, this: a couple of weeks ago I was out with work and a Leeds Rhinos supporting colleague expressed surprise that I had bailed on Super League. He likes the return to P&R and furthermore has bigger ideas about how to improve the league: "Get rid of London and Catalan and make it a Northern game again". Seriously, where to start with this depressingly rife, backward-looking, downright soulless vision for our game? But at least his new RFL regime seem to agree with him. Good luck to them both, just count me out, thanks.
We reap what we sow, and so do the Aussies. Until we learn the lessons of history, make some brave decisions and make no apologies for smashing the insular British rugby league mindset and giving the sport the plaform it deserves, we will continue to witness the sub-standard, lopsided tripe of yesterday, whilst our soccer-mad media react with rightful indifference and the Aussies party in the winter sunshine. "Raps" to them, because gee they have a good footy league there. The Challenge Cup Final - even a glorious one, as opposed to the muck served up yesterday - cannot save us. Only NRL or some genuine brave, modern thinking borrowed from it can. Give me a shout when either sees fit to show up on our shores.
Edited by DeadShotKeen, 25 August 2013 - 12:57 PM.