Page XIII: Tales of the Unexpected

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 435 (July 2017)

It’s a brave individual who still dares to stick their neck out and make a prediction on anything these days, in an age where today’s dead cert is tomorrow’s dead duck.

In a world where so called ‘expert’ opinion counted for anything, Hillary Clinton would be President of the United States, the United Kingdom would not be exiting the European Union, and Theresa May would be enjoying the plaudits after securing a triple-figure majority in the recent General Election. Closer to home, Castleford Tigers would still be on course for the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

But none of those surest of sure things actually came to pass, so who really knows anything anymore?

The actual outcomes may not always suit our own particular preferences, but it makes life less boring if nothing else.

However, having said all that, I’m now going to stick my neck out and make a prediction which, based on all previous evidence, I’m certain will turn out to be correct: the current structure of Rugby League in this country will not survive much longer in its present format.

In our sport, league structures have something of a mayfly existence; we’ve been chopping and changing them for almost as long as Rugby League has existed. Each new iteration has promised at the time to be the one that would result in more exciting outcomes, bigger crowds, more media coverage and unicorns dancing round the pitch in the pre-match entertainment. Well, maybe forget about the unicorns, they can be hard to find along the M62 in the summer, but you get the point.

League structures, and the perennial tweaking thereof, are seen as some kind of magic bullet to kill off whatever the latest problem to hit the game might be, when really they are not much more than a sticking plaster covering ailments that are in need of major surgery.

The bigwigs at the RFL and Super League have postponed the latest round of discussions to decide whether to faff about with the league structure again until the end of this season.

But who amongst us doubts that changes are coming?

Is there any point in getting worked up about it one way or the other? If you don’t like the current system, rest assured it won’t last forever. Don’t like the proposed replacement? Ditto. Give it a couple of years there’ll be another one along soon anyway.

We’ve had two divisions, three divisions, renamed and rebranded from one thing to another, 14 teams in Super League, then twelve, promotion and relegation replaced by licensing (of sorts) replaced by promotion and relegation (of sorts) courtesy of the Super 8s, we’ve had top five play-offs, top six play-offs, top eight play-offs, lower league Grand Finals that lead to promotion as well as Grand Finals that don’t, and sometimes no Grand Finals at all.

There can’t be a single permutation that hasn’t already been tried and tested, but the contrived changes will continue nevertheless, each one promising untold benefits and riches, until they are later ditched in favour of something else that is merely different for the sake of it, rather than quantifiably better in any respect.

Of course, players and fans are locked out of all these machinations, their role simply to get used to the latest upheaval and make the best of it.

The lamentable absence of a players union strips those upon whom the sport depends to provide the entertainment from having any voice to defend their interests against having their bodies flogged to death by the madness of excessive fixtures and dreaded ‘double’ rounds of the kind we have seen take place twice this year. Easter can at least be passed off as tradition, but the other was an unforgiveable indulgence.

The fans, well, they’re just expected to turn up in their droves to watch whatever is put in front of them, and face criticisms of disloyalty if they deem it unacceptable quality and choose to spend their cash elsewhere.

If I were to express a preference for an ideal league structure, it would be something that aimed to achieve these outcomes.

Don’t flog the players too hard. Don’t try and squeeze more cash out of the same bunch of fans. Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t promise too much.

Of course, those bigwigs at the RFL and Super League may confound us all and do the thing everyone least expects, and change nothing at all.

That would be the shock of the century.