A way forward for Rugby League

Talking Rugby League with League Express editor Martyn Sadler

What’s the best way forward for the governance of Rugby League, given the unsuccessful way in which the Super League handled the quest for private equity finance?

Having to pay £750,000 as an introduction fee to the merchant banker Rothschild when the deal they introduced was unacceptable to the clubs as a whole demonstrated, I’m afraid, that the breakaway of Super League from the RFL in 2018 is clearly not working and in fact is imposing costs on the clubs that they are, frankly, in no position to bear.

I’ve written before about the governance of the game and the need to establish a structure that will take the whole game forward, without clubs being able to intervene in situations where there is clearly a conflict of interest, with the clubs putting themselves ahead of the game as a whole.

I certainly don’t want to go over old ground, but it must be obvious to anyone with any feeling for the game that the current structure can’t continue. Unfortunately in a business sense the game in many areas is regressing, rather than progressing.

Not everything can be blamed on the game itself, which is having to cope with a rapidly changing and fracturing media environment, in which the old certainties about broadcasting are no longer apparent, as well as the Covid pandemic. The non-Super League clubs face a massive drop in their income next year that will force change upon them.

But, given those problems, it’s surely time to plan for the game’s long term future and it’s essential that the RFL, Super League and the clubs come together to try to find a way forward, whether we are talking about Super League, the semi-professional game, the community game and the pathways for young players who will ultimately play professionally.

We need the Rugby League equivalent of a Royal Commission, whereby a group of experts are appointed to examine a problem and propose a way forward.

I would suggest that the Chair of such a commission, were it to be established, should be Lord Jonathan Caine, the peer and former senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office who chaired the panel that decided in favour of Leigh Centurions as the replacement for Toronto Wolfpack in the Super League.

Before he chaired the panel that made that decision I had never come across him, but since then I’ve been quite impressed by what I’ve learned about him.

I think he would be an impressive figure to lead such a body, which could call in expert opinion to guide it on the best way the governance of Rugby League could be organised for the long term benefit of all sections of the game.

The point is that I’ve been involved in Rugby League in one way or another for as long as I care to remember, but I can’t remember a time when I was more uncertain about the future of the game.

I get the feeling that lots of other people feel the same way.

Folau’s troubles in Australia

Israel Folau gets a bad press in Australia, particularly from the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Fitzsimons, who is a former Australian rugby union international and writes a weekly column for that paper.

Fitzsimons regularly sticks the boot into Rugby League, while inevitably claiming that he actually likes the game, and the recent proposal by the St George Illawarra club to sign Folau on a two-year contract inevitably had Fitzsimons once again strongly criticising the club and Folau himself.

The fact that Folau, during his time with the Catalans Dragons, didn’t utter a word out of place and fully complied with his undertakings to the club not to indulge his religious beliefs in social media while in the south of France, wasn’t referred to by Fitzsimons.

But inevitably there was a backlash by some St George Illawarra supporters to the news that the club wanted to sign Folau and its directors backed out of the deal.

Inevitably the club lost a massive PR battle, both by approaching Folau in the first place, and by then caving in to pressure from those who opposed the deal.

If a club is going to sign a player whose name carries controversy, then surely it should sound out its supporters before it commits itself to offering a contract.

Folau is currently in Australia because his mother-in-law suffered a massive stroke and his wife Marie wants to be by her side as she tries to recover from that trauma.

She doesn’t want to return to France to be on the other side of the world when her mother needs care and attention and her husband won’t return without her.

There’s now a suggestion that Folau may be in talks with Parramatta, who courted him some years ago while he was still playing for the Wallabies.

I don’t know whether a significant section of Parramatta’s supporters would react in a similar way to the St George Illawarra fans, but the Eels do have strong support among South Pacific Rugby League fans in Sydney, which may tilt the balance in his favour.

Inclusion and diversity

The RFL has set up an Inclusion Board, which is intended to help Rugby League have more appeal to communities that currently don’t have much participation in the game.

Michael Lawrence of the Huddersfield Giants is a member of this new body and I had a very interesting conversation with him last week about his own career in Rugby League, how he came to play the game and the story of his own family.

Michael’s grandparents came to England from Jamaica many years ago, bringing their children (Michael’s parents) with them.

Rugby League meant very little, if anything to them, but by coincidence when Michael’s parents married and he was a young boy, they settled in a house opposite a Rugby League field.

Inevitably Michael wanted to get involved at the age of 6, and he’s been playing the game ever since.

But if his family hadn’t settled in a house in that particular location, he might never have taken up the game and he would probably have been lost to Rugby League.

It makes me wonder how many other young men or women with a West Indian heritage would also have been fine Rugby League players if only they had been introduced to the game in the way that Michael was.

And the same story must be true of young people from many other ethnic minority communities.

We recently had a feature in League Express on Ikram Butt, for example, who comes from an Asian Muslim background and was good enough to play for England during his career. Click here to read it on TotalRL.com now.

How many others are there like Ikram, if only we can find them?

In this week’s League Express we talk to Leeds Rhinos star Mikolaj Oledzki, who, as far as I know, is only the second player born in Poland to play in Super League.

I hope that Michael and his colleagues on the Inclusion Board can find a way to involve more young people from those wider ethnic communities to get involved in Rugby League.

Our sport has always been an inclusive one and we should all want to ensure that it continues to be so.

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