Isn’t Rugby League a funny old game?
I can’t think of any other sport that can elate you and depress you within such short timescales.
Just over a week ago those of us who saw England lose to Italy at Salford were feeling decidedly downbeat. The idea of England being able to compete with Australia and New Zealand looked a little ludicrous at that point.
Then of course it looked even more ludicrous during the days following, when the England camp dropped the bombshell last Tuesday that Gareth Hock was to be expelled from the England squad, to be replaced by Brett Ferres.
It wasn’t so much that Hock was thrown out, which was quite possibly deserved.
The depressing news was that other players had been with him when he broke an alcohol ban after that defeat by Italy.
Coach Steve McNamara decided not to come out with the names of those players, but it was quite easy to guess who they were. All we had to do was look at which players didn’t get selected for England to face Australia.
But then McNamara was quizzed about the names of the miscreants at his media conference at the Millennium Stadium on Friday. He refused to talk about individual players, and curtailed the media conference on the spot and walked out.
There was a wide range of opinion about McNamara’s wisdom in doing that, and about his actions since that disappointing defeat by Italy.
On the one hand, some people said that he did the right thing, and that by not selecting certain players, and refusing to confirm the details of the story, he was showing everybody that he was the boss.
I’m afraid that I don’t accept that view of events, for two reasons.
To start with, McNamara owes it to the media and to England supporters to explain himself.
All he had to do was explain what had happened, and why he had taken the particular course of action that he settled upon.
By not doing so, he handed the initiative to Hock, who appeared on a TV programme on Tuesday night to explain his side of the story, claiming to have been harshly treated by McNamara.
In fact Hock revealed that he had learned of his expulsion from the squad last Sunday at 5.00pm.
The following morning McNamara appeared at the launch event of the World Cup, which was held at Old Trafford.
He could have immediately revealed the news at that point, and explained why the expulsion had happened, and what he had decided to do about the other players who had been out drinking with Hock.
It would have been a big story at that point, but in a World Cup week that in itself is no bad thing. It would have projected McNamara onto the lead items in the sports pages, and he would have been portrayed as a strong, decisive leader.
And the whole issue would have been dealt with within 24 hours of Hock’s expulsion taking place.
Instead McNamara gave no hint of what had happened, and so inevitably the media were left to try to put two and two together.
They were still puzzling about it on Friday, when McNamara flounced out of the door.
Of course some people love to criticise the media, and portray journalists as the big bad villains of the piece, trying to extract information from a coach under pressure.
But regardless of the desire of the Rugby League media for a story, there is another compelling reason why McNamara should have been far more forthcoming.
Out of his squad of 24 players, seven were not selected in the 17-man squad that played on Saturday.
How many of those seven were involved in the boozing session with Hock on the previous Saturday night?
Are we to assume that they all were?
If I were an England player who had been left out of the squad on Saturday, but who hadn’t been out on the beer with Hock, I would be angry at the thought that some people might think I had been.
It’s rather like someone saying that a Rugby League journalist had been arrested for a heinous crime.
I would be very keen to ensure that the identity of the arrested individual was clarified as soon as possible, to ensure that no one thought it was me.
So, like most journalists, I don’t think that McNamara covered himself in glory prior to the game in Cardiff.
The thing about professional sport, however, is that results count.
If McNamara can win the World Cup, his cranky press conference will be barely remembered.
And then we came to the games.
England were a different team to the one that played Italy, especially in the first 20 minutes of the first half.
And we all have grounds for optimism that James Graham and Sean O’Loughlin can come back into the side and stiffen it up so that when England face New Zealand in the semi-final we can be confident of winning.
New Zealand took part in a magnificent game against Samoa at Warrington on Sunday night. The two teams set the tournament alight. But Samoa scored five tries, and if they can do it, so can we.
And Italy showed, in defeating Wales convincingly, that they are capable of reaching the quarter-finals. They are a fine team with some fine players.
In fact the really encouraging thing about the World Cup, which we should see more evidence of in the next few days, is that the weaker nations are not very weak any more.
I can’t wait for the games at Rochdale, Workington and Bristol in the next three days. Every game looks like a great prospect.
I have a funny feeling that this tournament really is going to send Rugby League on the road to riches, and not the highway to hell, which was the song that rang out in the excellent Opening Ceremony at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
But if the game does get bigger, our coaches and officials at all levels of the game had better get ready for more media scrutiny.
Dispute reaches stalemate
Last week six Super League clubs walked out of a meeting of their peers.
The meeting had been called with the aim of ratifying the RFL’s proposals in its policy review, and in particular the two-twelves, three-eights proposals.
The RFL and Super League Chairman Brian Barwick tried to move a vote on that issue, and the six clubs decided to walk out to make the meeting inquorate.
Those six clubs are not prepared to vote for a proposal to change the structure of the leagues without a commitment to control their own competition and a seat on the RFL Board of Directors.
After the meeting, Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington was widely quoted saying that the six should apologise for their actions, which were appalling.
Unfortunately, there is an undercurrent of feeling among the other Super League clubs, rightly or wrongly, that Gary has far too much influence with the RFL chief executive Nigel Wood. Many of them seem to believe that what comes from Nigel comes, indirectly, from Gary.
I’m sure that Gary (and Nigel) would deny that.
But it’s the perception that counts.
The other Super League clubs are beginning to flex their muscles, and they wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t have a genuine worry about the state of the game’s finances.
And who knows what will happen now. There is a stalemate, and no further meetings are organised.
I’m afraid that even his colleagues are now beginning to suggest that Nigel Wood may have to go if the deadlock is to be broken.
Wood is an able fellow who genuinely loves the game.
But he does appear to have lost the confidence of a large number of key stakeholders.
First published in League Express, Monday 28th October 2013