Where now for international Rugby League?
You only had to watch the first ten minutes of England’s World Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday to see how vital international sport is, and how it transcends the club game.
Super League and the NRL are great competitions in their own right.
But they don’t have the potential to draw in the whole population in the way that an international team can do.
Rugby union has been showing us how to do it for as long as I can remember.
But our sport has stubbornly refused to learn the lesson. Perhaps the 2013 World Cup will be the catalyst for that attitude to finally change.
The big crowds, the sense of anticipation, the thrill of seeing the best players on the planet coming together, and the commitment of those players to their countries, even when they weren’t born in the countries they were playing for, must surely give Rugby League’s leading officials on both sides of the world pause for thought.
The club game, both in Super League and the NRL, is of course the bread and butter of our game, and we can’t afford to reduce its importance.
But is there any conflict between the club game and raising the profile of our international game?
Financially there can’t be, because when two successive weekends of international Rugby League can draw a combined total of 140,000 people, the income that is generated will ultimately benefit the club game. Where there is a conflict, however, is in the demands made on players and on the clubs themselves.
To put it in a nutshell, we can’t extend the season to the end of November every year and expect players to perform at their best.
So the only realistic solution for more international competition is to have it mid-season.
In the July issue of Rugby League World I wrote an article that suggested we have a three-match annual series against the Kiwis alternating at home and away each year. My suggestion was that it should coincide with the three-game State of Origin series, which should be played on three successive Wednesdays.
After Saturday’s wonderful match at Wembley I’m certain that an annual series against the Kiwis would be a tremendous draw, and it would be the equivalent of providing the two countries with their own equivalent of the annual State of Origin series.
Let’s get it on.
McNamara’s dignity in defeat
England coach Steve McNamara has come in for some criticism in this tournament, including from me, for the way in which he refused to come clean about some disciplinary problems in the squad earlier in the competition.
It meant that even last week, when Rangi Chase was given permission to return home after not being selected for England’s semi-final team, we found it hard to believe the official version of events.
And yet on Saturday McNamara gave a media conference after England’s agonising defeat that was mature, generous in spirit and magnanimous towards his opponents. And McNamara demonstrated an awareness of how important the game had been in drawing potential new supporters towards Rugby League.
It was fitting that the England coach gave his best media performance right at the very end of his tournament.
Some reports suggest that he will now become the backs coach at Bath RUFC, and that he won’t hang about to see whether he will be re-appointed as England coach.
Whatever he does from now on, I would like to wish him well.
Super League and the NRL
I’m getting tired of hearing about how wonderful the NRL is compared to Super League, and that if we only had more players in the NRL, we would therefore have more chance of beating the Aussies and Kiwis.
My colleagues Garry Schofield and Malcolm Andrews tend to take this view, as do many other pundits.
We have to accept that the NRL competition is of a more even standard than Super League, and that the weaker Super League clubs are much weaker than their equivalents in the NRL.
But even if we believe that, our objective should not be to see all our best players leaving Super League to head down under.
It should instead be to see our own competition raise its standard so that there isn’t such a gap between the two competitions.
These days the biggest gap is a financial one, more than anything else, as I make clear below.
And it’s worth bearing in mind that NRL players are as capable of making mistakes as anyone else.
Garry, in his column in this week’s League Express, points out that the Kiwis, because of their NRL players, were better able to handle the pressure of the final ten minutes of Saturday’s game than England were.
But let’s not forget that it was George Burgess who gave away the late penalty that led to England’s defeat. And last time I looked George was playing in the NRL.
And didn’t Tonga have a host of NRL players when they were beaten by Scotland’s team that was made up largely of Kingstone Press Championship players? A question of money
I was recently reading that the NRL will be giving a grant of A$7.55 million to each of its 16 clubs for the 2014 season.
The salary cap in the NRL will be set at A$6.7 million in 2014.
In Super League the annual grant is about £1.2 million per club, and the salary cap is set effectively at around £1.8 million.
Those facts explain, as nothing else can, why so many of our clubs struggle financially. Many people claim that licensing hasn’t worked, in that it hasn’t prevented clubs from going into administration.
But what those figures show is that licensing itself isn’t the culprit. If you want to understand how financial problems arise, you have to look at the underlying financial figures.
The sad truth is that too many of our clubs can’t close the funding gap, which is a problem that Australian clubs don’t have to face.
Should Featherstone take the bait?
What will happen to the Magic Weekend if London Broncos don’t get to the starting line next season?
It will be impossible to organise the Magic Weekend with only 13 teams. And it will be impossible to have a season in which all the clubs play the same number of matches.
The obvious solution, if the Broncos don’t survive, is to promote one of the Championship clubs, with Featherstone Rovers probably looking like the club that would be best equipped to make the transition. And yet I can hardly believe it would be in Featherstone’s interests to take a place in Super League, especially if two clubs will be relegated from Super League at the end of 2014.
Any Championship club taking up a late invitation to join Super League will be unable to put a decent full-time squad together. Their team will be battered and bruised, and it will be relegated at the end of the season if the Super League clubs agree to introduce relegation.
I know that many Featherstone supporters will want to see their club in Super League, come what may.
But they really should be careful what they wish for.
Unless and until they are given a guarantee of spending at least three years in Super League without being relegated, then they shouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.
Steve’s final goodbye
Sadly I couldn’t attend Steve Prescott’s funeral last week for family reasons, although I wish I could have been there to say my own goodbyes to his memory.
Steve’s 12-year-old son Taylor spoke at his father’s funeral, and revealed a promise he had made to his dad.
“When I was five and my dad first became ill, I made him a promise always to do my best and to follow my dream of being a sportsman,” said Taylor.
I’m sure the young man will succeed, and, if he doesn’t, it won’t be for the want of trying.
First published in League Express, Monday 25th Nov 2013Comment on this and other stories on the Total Rugby League Fans Forum