Page XIII: Only A Northern Song?

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 431 (March 2017)

Look, let me start by saying I have nothing whatsoever against Johnny Vegas. I’ve seen him on QI amongst other things on the telly; I get it, I understand his schtick. I’ve even laughed, occasionally. And it’s nice that he’s a reasonably well known celebrity and he likes Rugby League.

But I cringed when I saw he was to be presented as the face of Super League by Sky Sports in their promo video to launch the new season.

What was the thinking behind it? Was there any? I can’t help but wonder.

Rugby League is a sport that has been unfairly marginalised and pigeonholed for many years by its northern English roots.

Super League, by its very nature, was something of a reaction against that when it was first created, containing as it did back in 1996 a club in London and a club in Paris. Even now, having long lost its foothold in the French and English capitals, it still contains a team from the south of France in its ranks. We also now have a French club in the Championship and a Canadian club in League 1, rubbing shoulders with teams from almost all corners of the country.

Yet Sky, who broadcast all of Catalans Dragons games, incidentally, chose to herald the big kick off with a shouty northern bloke, reinforcing all the old stereotypes we’ve spent years trying to move on from.

The BBC also still occasionally indulges itself in this way when it comes to broadcasting our sport, drafting in the impeccably northern Maxine Peake to open its Challenge Cup coverage a couple of years ago. She did at least wear a beret and not a flat cap, but still, the same point is made: this is a northern game for northern people.

Tell that to the tribesmen of Papua New Guinea where it is the national sport, I feel like screaming in response.

In the Johnny Vegas promo, the players, who are the true stars of Rugby League and should be presented as such at every given opportunity, merely become the hapless stooges to a comedic rant.

They deserve better than that.

Maybe I’m taking it too seriously. It’s just a bit of a laugh, after all, some will say. Chill out.

I’m all for having a laugh, as the lighter tone we’ve injected into RLW in recent issues hopefully bears out. But whilst we can have a chuckle to ourselves about some of the absurdities that arise in Rugby League, if only to assuage the frustration that it isn’t played or watched by more people in more places, when it comes to those rare opportunities to reach out to a new audience, we need to be much more careful about the image we present – or the image we allow to be presented on our behalf.

At its best, Rugby League is a vibrant, colourful sport played by some of the finest athletes on the planet. That’s really all we need to show people if we want to draw them in. We don’t need a northern comic to witter on about passion or to rubbish other sports to promote our own: just show the players in action, doing what they do best.

I was also dismayed by the generally negative, often unnecessarily vitriolic reaction to the news that Prince Harry would be replacing The Queen as the new Patron of the Rugby Football League. Not simply because he is a fellow ginger, nor because of any position I hold on the rights or wrongs of hereditary monarchy, which is a debate for another time and another place, but because I think it actually does the game harm to be seen to be so visibly unwelcoming to someone who is a newcomer to it.

Rugby League is, or should be, a sport for everyone, regardless of their place of birth or personal background and those of us fortunate enough to already be steeped in its values and culture should be willing to share it more openly.

If we do that, we might yet encourage more people to play and watch it than we have now, and we might even end up with the sight of Johnny Vegas and Prince Harry sat together at Wembley enjoying the Challenge Cup final, in London of course, which last time I looked on a map was nowhere near the north of England.