Talking Rugby League: How our sport should be promoting its clashes

I don’t normally take much interest in Formula 1 motor racing.

But even I was fully aware of the tension building up to Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen battled it out to become this year’s Formula 1 champion.

For most of the race it looked as though Hamilton would skate home, until there was a hold-up in the race, allowing Verstappen to draw level and then overtake Hamilton in the closing stages.

As a non-aficionado, I’m not sure what was going on that allowed Verstappen to win the race when he had looked to be in a hopeless position.

But even I would have to admit that it was a dramatic event and in my view there are plenty of lessons we can learn from Formula 1, in particular from the build-up to the race.

The fact is that when we personalise a sporting event, pitting key individuals against each other in the media before the event itself, we inevitably boost the interest in it.

And, in doing so, we boost the attendance and the TV viewing figures.

So my advice to Super League is to work out how it can do something similar to promote Rugby League matches, particularly when it comes to the opening games of the season.

In Rugby League we have always been shy about building up feeling going into a game. The majority of coaches are reluctant to say anything negative about their opponents in the week leading up to a game for fear of raising their adrenalin and motivation levels.

I can understand that viewpoint, but unfortunately it results in a lack of attention being paid to Rugby League matches when far more people should be talking about them.

We see it done in other sports and it is surely one reason why boxing has become such a big spectator and TV sport and why leading boxers today seem to be so much more articulate than they used to be.

Johnny Nelson’s occasional Sky programme, ‘The Gloves Are Off’, sees opponents facing each other across a table with Nelson acting as the host and the arbiter. In many cases those discussions can be almost as interesting as the fights themselves.

So let’s imagine we were going to do something similar for the matches on the opening weekend of the Super League season. Which players or coaches would we get from each club to preview the games? And who would be a good presenter, to take on the Johnny Nelson role?

For the opening game of the season, between St Helens and the Catalans Dragons, there would be an obvious matchup between the 2021 Man of Steel Sam Tomkins and the 2021 Super League Young Player of the Year Jack Welsby, who will surely one day take over Sam’s position as the English fullback.

For Castleford v Salford, the obvious player from the Tigers would be Jake Mamo, while for Salford it would probably be Marc Sneyd.

When we come to Hull KR v Wigan, I’d suggest Lachlan Coote and John Bateman.

For the Channel 4 match between Leeds and Warrington, I would go for the four halfbacks – Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer for Leeds, and George Williams and Gareth Widdop for Warrington. The battle of the halfbacks in that game will surely be worth going an awful long way to see and it would be great to see Super League promoting that game on the back of that particular clash.

Then we have Toulouse’s first game as a Super League club, when perhaps the two most obvious candidates for a pre-match discussion would be the two coaches, Sylvain Houses and Ian Watson.

Then we have the final match of the round between Wakefield Trinity and Hull FC and the two players I would like to see previewing that game would be the two halfbacks Mason Lino and Luke Gale.

And who would be the best presenter, if such a series of programmes could be arranged?

In boxing, Johnny Nelson is very successful in that role because he was a boxer himself at the very highest level and he can talk about his sport articulately and with passion. He can bring his guests out of themselves and prod them into saying something interesting, both about themselves and their opponents.

So in my view, the best person to fill that role in Rugby League would be a player or a recently retired player.

One name that springs to mind is Kyle Amor, who is probably in the final year of his contract at St Helens in 2022.

Whenever Kyle appears on TV it’s hard not to be impressed by his enthusiasm and his eloquence when talking about the game. I think he would be terrific in that sort of role.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that we would be able to persuade a broadcaster to screen more than one of those ‘The Gloves Are Off’ programmes each week. But one would certainly be better than none.

If we are ever going to see Rugby League generating bigger broadcast deals than it currently has, we have to find a way of promoting the game’s biggest assets, in other words the players.

Wigan putting in the extra yards

One of the most active clubs during this close season has been Wigan, who have been working hard on various fronts, in including sending their first-team squad to the sand dunes at Crosby beach in Merseyside.

Last week the club confirmed that there will be a record number of teams representing the Cherry and Whites in the club’s 150th year, including a new Touch Rugby team – there will be eleven different Wigan Warriors teams in total.

Those teams will be First Team, Reserves, Academy, Scholarship, Women, Women’s Academy, PDRL, LDRL, Wheelchair, Touch Rugby and College teams.

That list, as much as anything else, illustrates perfectly how much Rugby League has evolved in recent years.

To quote the club’s Executive Director, Kris Radlinski: “We are delighted to be actively increasing the opportunities that are available for members of the community and aspiring professional players to be involved in Rugby League.

“As a sport and as a club we are very focused on being inclusive in all that we deliver. Across the eleven teams we now provide outstanding pathways that allows both participation and development opportunities for the individuals involved.

“It’s an exciting time for the development of Rugby League and building further capacity in this area is very much at the forefront of our plans for 2022 and beyond.

“Even though 2021 was difficult, one of the highlights for me was seeing the LDRL team playing at the DW Stadium. It was something that the players will not forget, and neither will I.

“In addition to the playing opportunities, people can get involved in different ways to support the teams. This may be from a sponsorship or a volunteering point of view but definitely from a supporting point of view.”

In recent weeks Wigan have also been doing a tremendous amount of liaison work with the community clubs in their district.

Over the last few years, the club seems to have lost a bit of ground in terms of spectator support, but it’s great to see it making such a strong effort to play such a key role within its community.

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