This article is League Express editor MARTYN SADLER’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column taken from this week’s edition of League Express
Last weekend was a great one for Rugby League down under, with a superb game between the Māori and Indigenous Australian All Stars in the New Zealand city of Rotorua adding some gloss to the opening weekend of the NRL Pre-Season Challenge series of nine matches, which were all shown on Sky Sports.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to watch them all, but of course the priority had to be St Helens’ game against the St George Illawarra Dragons in Wollongong.
The Dragons were the ones to come onto the pitch wearing the famous Red Vee that is so much part of both club’s iconic strips. But it was St Helens who started the game on fire, scoring two early tries and looking determined to get the most out of the game before they face the Penrith Panthers this Saturday at BlueBet Stadium.
It’s difficult to fully appreciate how little regard many Australian Rugby League people have for the quality of Super League, so it was wonderful to see Saints winning the game, even if the Dragons were admittedly not at full strength.
This Saturday we can guarantee that the Panthers will be very near to full strength and, although they will be formidable opponents, St Helens have triumphed twice before in the World Club Challenge while the Panthers never have.
On Saturday, Saints were brilliantly led by James Roby, whose pre-match team talk was picked out by the commentators.
Roby’s superb short grubber that was pounced upon by Lewis Dodd for Saints’ opening try was a move that would make anyone sit up and take notice and it inevitably made me wonder what might have happened if Roby had plied his trade in Australia at some time during his glorious career.
In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald he revealed that he had two distinct opportunities to join an Australian club but it never quite worked out for him.
The first time was on the 2006 Great Britain tour of Australia when he was only 20 years old and he was tapped up by the Sydney Roosters, who flew him back from the north of England to inspect their facilities.
“But my wife [Natasha] who was my girlfriend at the time, she was pregnant, she was 18, I was 20, and we were worried about being young parents away from home,” Roby said.
“I then had talks with Parramatta in 2013. I was very tempted, it was the closest I had come, and the emails went back and forth for a few weeks.
“In the end, it wasn’t a bad thing because a year later they [the Eels] were done for all the salary-cap stuff.
“When I was younger, the money wasn’t too different [between the two competitions], and I was happy being a hometown lad. The money now is vastly different, and if I was 20 years old again, maybe I would have made a different decision.”
That last sentence is an ominous one for British Rugby League.
No doubt the younger players in the St Helens squad, such as Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd, will have attracted some admirers at the weekend and I would be amazed if the offers didn’t start pouring in.
There is now such a significant difference between the earning power of players in the NRL and Super League that a migration of our young stars looks inevitable, especially if the NRL expands again from its current 17 clubs.
The NRL’s idea of having two weekends of pre-season games, with every club taking part and making both games competitive with a prize of A$100,000 for the team that wins the competition, has generated some great headlines and some fine rugby, as anyone who tuned in to the games would have seen.
I’ve always thought that the slightly chaotic pre-season that we have in England is a poor preamble to the season and something far more organised would be highly preferable.
I’m sure that the IMG people will have been watching the NRL Pre-Season Challenge from afar and will have taken note of its successful launch.
Interestingly enough, St Helens are in with a real chance of actually winning the prize money, given that they are on 14 points, with only the Roosters and Manly ahead of them with 15.
That isn’t St Helens’ priority, of course, but it would amplify their achievement of winning the World Club Challenge if they could also win the money.
That would certainly make the Aussies sit up and take notice.
If you look at the betting odds from Betfred on page 2 of this newspaper, you’ll see that Hull Kingston Rovers are priced at 50/1 to win the Grand Final, the eleventh favourites.
And that also means that they are presumably the second favourites to be relegated.
I’m very surprised by those odds, partly because I think that the Robins have recruited well this year and they seem to me to be a club on the rise.
I visited the club on Friday and was given an impressive presentation by its chief executive Paul Lakin about some of the developments that will happen in the near future at and around the stadium. On the basis of what I saw, I would suggest that Rovers’ supporters have plenty to look forward to and to feel optimistic about.
I don’t know how the Robins will fare when the new grading system is introduced, but I’d like to bet that they will receive a grade A within five years or less.
There’s Nothing Like League
The 2023 season promotional video for Super League is entitled ‘There’s nothing like league’, which I think we can all agree on.
But I do wish that whoever prepared that video had included some crowd shots.
While watching the NRL games over the weekend, it was hard not to notice the NFL promotional material for Sunday night’s Super Bowl.
There was some great action from the field, but almost every shot of that sort was supplemented by shots of the fans in the crowd celebrating and having a great time.
That is what sells the game, when viewers can see the fans enjoying themselves.
Videos of players looking deadly serious are not anything like as effective.