COLUMN: Does British rugby league have an inferiority complex doing more harm than good?

Of the many phrases I hear coaches and players say on a regular basis, one that sits somewhere near the top would be ‘ only worry about what you control’.

It’s a sound phrase, with credible reasoning behind it that applies to life in general, not just rugby league or sport. It’s pointless getting upset about things which you can’t have any worthwhile impact upon.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t get upset from things that are out of your control from time to time. It’s in our very DNA as human beings to worry and grow concerned about things.

Where are we going here, I hear you ask?

Recently, it’s started to become more and more obvious – to me, if nobody else – that British rugby league has a serious issue with its own image. Not the image we’re given by the mainstream media, people in London or even 12,000 miles away on the other side of the world.

It’s a pertinent time to raise the issue this week, because Super League is about to take another exciting, bold step into the unknown on Saturday when two of the competition’s sides host a regular-season game in Australia. That’s big business, and if it’s done right and received well enough, it could be the catalyst for more sides to do it in the future. And I hope they do.

As a sport, we smash innovation out of the park – and believe you and me, other sports and the wider public do see it. It’s why your media coverage increases exponentially for events like Magic Weekend, the Grand Final and so on.

But Hull’s game with Wigan is, effectively, a microcosm of the point here. I recall last summer, and the majority of replies I got through my social media feeds on the announcement the Wollongong trip was happening. Most of them were negative. ‘What’s the point’, or ‘it’s taking a home game away from supporters’.

Our first instinct in this sport is to complain and feel aggrieved. It’s our modus operandi: and we’re all guilty of it: I’ve done it enough times in the past myself. Maybe it’s the 1895 in all of us and a refusal to let go of the circumstances in which our sport was born. Maybe it isn’t. We’ll probably never know exactly why we do it. But we do.

We complain about Sky’s coverage. We complain about doing new, exciting things. We complain about which side is on the front of a trade paper every Monday, decrying ‘Yorkshire/Lancashire (delete as appropriate) bias’ irrespective of the fact the split is pretty much 50/50, and dependent on a decision to promote a newspaper, not which club/region the trades want to wind up.

Throw in the recent events concerning the Hearn family – where boxing promoter Eddie admitted he’d been inundated with messages from fans begging him to get involved – and it’s not hard to see where that image comes from.

To make matters worse, there’s the age-old obsession with trying to match the sport up against its bigger cousins, most notably football. ‘Why does football get more coverage than we do’, and so on and so forth. The more any sport – not just league – compares itself to football, the worse it’ll feel: and indeed, look, too.

It’s probably not even an exaggeration to suggest that the people who truly hit league the hardest in this country are its own fans. I have spoken to people in London in the past – people who work on sports desks for national newspapers, furthermore. They like league, they think the product is impressive. But they like it in the same way they like The Masters golf, or the British Grand Prix. But until we prioritise the international game, that’s all we’ll ever be to the majority of people outside of the M62. ‘That rugby league is nice, isn’t it?’ in the same way ‘that cat is cute, isn’t it?’

Rugby league in Britain is a second-tier sport. And you know what, I think we should be bloomin’ proud of that. It’s a strong second-tier sport, too – maybe the strongest. It’s not got the might or mainstream appeal of football or cricket, but it’s got a strong television deal (for now), unbelievable athletes and a product which is pretty unrivalled. Even league fans admit that.

I do sometimes wonder if that insular approach we have – to slam, chastise and criticise everything rugby league in the public domain – does us more harm than good. It’s not the product which is the problem, and recently, I’ve just grown to accept that if people don’t watch Super League every weekend, it’s their loss. We should pull back on hammering rugby union, decrying the fact that Premier League footballers dive and our lads go through brick walls every week. We should be proud of what we are, and be proud of what we stand for as a sport. In almost 125 years, rugby league has crafted itself a sport in the British sporting landscape out of nothing. Would we all like more? Of course we would. But you worry about what you control, as it were – and we can control how we promote, strategise and publicise our great game. We all have a part to play.

Hopefully in six months time we can look back on what’s happening now – you know, reported ‘civil war’, the game’s top jobs being up for grabs – and laugh about it. Maybe this testing period will do our profile good in the long run.

Maybe it’s just me growing up. But as time goes on, I’ve found it more and more worthwhile to get excited about the good rugby league has to offer, rather than dwelling and focussing on the snubs and the negatives. I fear our growing inferiority complex is giving our game’s image a right old battering – I hope I’m wrong.