A new decade is almost upon us, but is there a new buzz about our great game?
Not that I can detect.
The start of the Super League season is less than five weeks away.
Two of our biggest clubs, Wigan and Warrington, get things under way on Thursday, January 30.
Then, on Friday 31, we have a repeat of last season’s Grand Final, when St Helens host Salford, and what a sensational story the Red Devils gave us in 2019.
But where’s all the hype? Where’s the sense of anticipation? Where’s the build-up?
I remember the fanfare when Robert Elstone (pictured) became chief executive of the newly-empowered Super League, charged with leading the game forward and thrashing out the most beneficial new television deal possible.
The new agreement, when it is reached, will take effect from 2022, and obviously we don’t yet know the nature of it. But going by what has happened far, has Mr Elstone been a success?
Surely part of his brief is to put Rugby League far more firmly into the national spotlight, revolutionise the marketing of the sport and attract a new and bigger audience.
Look at football, with the fuss that’s made about the announcement of fixtures in the first place, then the constant talk about upcoming games and discussion and dissection of those that have take place.
And look at darts, with all the razzmatazz and the way Fallon Sherrock has hit the headlines.
Yes it’s a fantastic story, and one that only comes along every so often. But that sport has got itself into a position where it can make the most of historic events like becoming the first woman to win a match at the world championship.
Rugby League, by contrast, seems to limp along almost apologetically.
The Super League fixtures were revealed on November 5, but there were few fireworks at the time, and like Bonfire Night, everything seems to have faded away since.
You just don’t see the sport mentioned enough at a national level, not even by Sky and the BBC, who both broadcast Rugby League. And while there might be some bias on the part of some powerful people at various news organisations, we simply don’t help ourselves.
The first weekend of Super League, for instance, is also the first weekend of the Six Nations, which means there’s even less chance of getting the wider publicity we so desperately need to grow the game and attract new fans.
Think of television programmes with ‘celebrity’ involvement, like Question of Sport, quizzes and even Masterchef. How often do you see a Rugby League player, past or present, involved? We just don’t have that vital presence.
You look back to where we were ten years ago, and ask whether the game has developed.
I don’t think we have a bigger audience than we did in 2009 and I don’t think we have a better quality product at domestic level.
And while the rise of the likes of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa has been great to see, I’m not sure the overall standard of play at international level is any higher.
Any sport has to constantly evaluate and improve itself and move forward, but this really does seem like a crucial crossroads period for Rugby League.
The competition we face for followers has never been greater, and while hosting the World Cup in 2021 means we have a fantastic opportunity to move forward, will we take it?
Time will tell.
Time to drop dual-registration
The return of regular Reserve-team Rugby League is good news.
But the new competition has to be competitive and meaningful if it is to be effective.
I think it’s vital that clubs invest in young, homegrown talent.
At the moment, there are players out there, but the longer we go without discovering and nurturing them, the fewer there will be.
Overseas players can add sparkle, interest and skill to the domestic game.
But, as I’ve said plenty of times before, clubs rely too much on overseas journeymen, and of course for every one of those playing over here, there are fewer opportunities for homegrown players who may then drift away from the sport.
I know the pressure to get results means it can be hard for coaches to stick with younger players who will inevitably make mistakes when they are still learning the ropes.
The existence of a strong Reserve competition means some of those mistakes can be made at that level, and in theory, young players will be more ready to step up to play in the first team.
I think back to my own career, when you knew that if you didn’t perform in the first team, there was someone in the seconds champing at the bit to get your place.
Hopefully we can get back to that situation, but it won’t happen overnight, and clubs have to be willing to invest time as well as money in what has to be a long-term project.
One thing I would do immediately is drop dual-registration, which in my opinion only really benefits the biggest clubs, who are getting meaningful game time for their developing young players or those who might be returning from injury.
The ‘receiving’ club may get a short-term boost, but I feel for the coaches who might end up using a player who has had only one or two training sessions.
And the coach also has to deal with the existing players at his club who miss out through dual-registration, and maintain that crucial camaraderie and team spirit.
I think it’s different if a player goes out on loan for a specified period of time, because he becomes more a part of that club, but for me, dual-registration doesn’t do the job.
Two promising debuts
You can’t read too much into pre-season matches, but Luke Gale, Danny Richardson and the supporters of Bradford will all have been boosted by events on Boxing Day.
After the trials and tribulations of the last two seasons, which have been ruined by his knee and Achilles injuries respectively, Luke got a valuable hour or so under his belt as Leeds beat Wakefield 30-4 at Headingley.
Crucially for a halfback, he was a dominant and vocal figure in the time he was on the field, and he got the chance to play alongside both Robert Lui, who is set to be his regular partner, and Richie Myler.
And, while work done on the training ground is very important, minutes on the field against competitive opponents are invaluable.
From what I’ve heard, Danny also produced an encouraging ‘debut’ performance for Castleford, even if they did lose 20-14 to Bradford.
He could have a big impact on the Tigers’ season this time around.
And while Castleford might not have been at full strength, that win will nevertheless have been warmly welcomed by Bradford and the loyal fans who have stuck by them through some very thin times.
Hopefully they will have more victories to enjoy in 2020, and by 2021 they will be watching their side back at Odsal.