This piece was originally in this week’s League Express.
RFL chief executive Nigel Wood believes that the progress made by Rugby League on a number of fronts in 2015 has equipped the sport to move forward strongly in the New Year.
And, after England’s international triumph in the Test series against New Zealand, he is confident that the national side can continue to make progress.
At the start of 2015 many observers worried about the impact the Rugby Union World Cup could have on Rugby League, but Wood believes that Rugby League has easily brushed off the challenge of the other code.
“One of the issues for our sport is that we tend to spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to other sports and deciding whether we should be doing better or worse than we are doing,” Wood told League Express.
“2015 was a very important year for Rugby League because we made a significant and some would say radical change to the league format. No matter how much modelling you do in advance of it, you really need to see it played out in practice to see all the positives and potential negatives. So it was always a big year.
“But, then again, most independent observers would reflect back on 2015 as being a very good year for the sport across any number of measures.
“It was clearly a very important year with the introduction of a new format, new competitions and new events and in the main I think the season provided high-quality sporting excitement and compelling stories.
“The finale to the season could not have been better, with terrific finishes to the domestic competitions and a thrilling home series win against the nation currently ranked first in the world. I hope that history will judge the 120th anniversary of Rugby League to be a fitting example of the attributes that make it such a great sport.”
And Wood believes that England’s series victory over New Zealand was a great indicator of the progress the game has made, although he is reluctant to confirm that England coach Steve McNamara’s contract will be renewed.
“Most observers would agree that England have made great progress, so far, under Steve McNamara’s stewardship, but after five years in charge and with the current contract term just expiring, it is right and proper that we reflect on what we need to do to take us forward the into the 2016 Four Nations series and indeed the next World Cup. Steve understands that and the RFL Board will considering this vital decision over the next couple of weeks.
“The progress while Steve has been in charge has been significant and solid and we need to decide what to do to take us to the next level.”
The next international competition, however, will be the World Club Series, when the three leading club teams from Super League will take on the three top clubs from the NRL. And Wood is confident that, unlike in 2015, the English clubs can emerge triumphant.
“Expanding the World Club Challenge was a long-standing aspiration and I think last season gave us a taster for what it is capable of developing into,” he said.
“The NRL providing their first three ranked sides to match ours is another welcome development and I hope and believe the concept will go from strength to strength.
“I am confident that our teams can match theirs and that we can win the series with at least two victories. At the highest level I’m confident that our best teams can match theirs, and we did actually see that last year in the matches at Warrington and Wigan, before South Sydney put down a marker at St Helens.”
As well as being the chief executive of the RFL, Wood is also the Chairman of the Rugby League International Federation, and he is confident that the international game can make rapid strides in the years to come.
“The next six months are very important for the RLIF and for the international game generally,” added Wood.
“A new strategy for the sport has recently been agreed and the next six months should see new commercial and broadcast contracts emerge for the RLIF and indeed the plans for both the 2017 and 2021 World Cups take greater shape. The level of co-operation internationally has never been stronger and I believe the sport can make great progress over the next couple of years with some very exciting developments.”
One of the developments that made a big impact in 2015 was Kevin Sinfield’s success in coming second to Tennis star Andy Murray recently in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year vote with more than 278,000 votes.
Sinfield was the first Rugby League player to be shortlisted for the honour, and Wood hopes that he won’t be the last.
“It was a huge and fitting personal honour for Kevin and a fitting reflection on a fine career,” said the RFL boss.
“It was great to see Rugby League featured so strongly in the show with Lizzie Jones once again showing great dignity and presence. Moreover, I look forward to the day when a Rugby League player being up for the national awards is not seen as exceptional. It’s a bit like the Keegan Hirst story; a good thing to happen, but hopefully someday it won’t be as newsworthy as it currently is.”
And Wood is convinced that Rugby League really can look forward to a genuinely happy and exciting New Year in 2016 that will build on the progress made in 2015.
“I hope we have just as good a year in 2016,” he said.
“I think the competition structure will be better understood and that should provide greater excitement. We also have more full-time clubs that at any time in the game’s history, with more employment opportunities for Rugby League players and coaches than ever before. 2016 also provides the tenth Magic Weekend to look forward to in the special surrounds of St James Park.
“And, in League 1, Toulouse will make a welcome return to being a new dimension to what is a very good-looking division.
“Next autumn we will have the Four Nations to look forward to, and in particular, with the Kangaroos returning to these shores for the first time since the World Cup.”
One of the teams the Kangaroos will face is Scotland, and Wood hopes that the Scots will be able to give a good account of themselves in the Four Nations, with at least one game being played north of the border.
“I’ve looked at Scotland’s proposed roster and they will be able to get to 17 really high-calibre players who will do justice to the competition.
“They did well in 2013 and of course their participation is not without its challenges.
“The discussions about where to play their games are ongoing and the Scottish Rugby League has every right to be at the heart of them.”