Rugby league followers periodically claim that their sport is not taken seriously. Yet they fail to recognise that poor quality leadership plays a key part in portraying the image of a sport lacking internal integrity.
Take today’s press release from the RFL, which announces another switch of countries, with the talented Warrington Wolves duo Ben Harrison and Chris Bridge renouncing their Irish qualification and opting instead to represent England.
Leave aside for the moment that they are now coached by Tony Smith, also the England coach. Leave aside the fact that they were English junior internationals in the first place before opting to play for Ireland. Leave aside even that they have already represented Ireland in World Cup rugby.
Consider instead what kind of message this sends out.
- It’s a clear statement of disrespect for the Irish Rugby League, for the Irish citizen, whether interested in the game or not.
- It’s a clear snub to the Irish players and coaches who worked alongside Harrison and Bridge and to the players whom they displaced from the Irish national side whilst they were in it.
- It’s a clear bending of rules to fit a given situation; we want an expanded World Cup so you, you and you … you can all be Irish. We want a strong ‘England’ set-up to beat the Aussies … ah, well you can be English again if you want.
- It’s an admission that the depth of talent in English rugby league is insufficient, which is itself an implicit condemnation of the RFL’s own player development strategies.
- It’s an ‘up yours’ basically to everyone who wants to see fair play.
Ireland coach Andy Kelly said he was “disappointed” to lose two players of the calibre of Bridge and Harrison from his squad that is preparing for the rugbyleague.com European Cup but wished both Bridge and Harrison well.
“Hopefully at some point we might get the opportunity to work with Ben and Chris again but for now we wish them every success with England.”
Smith explained the situation with (Peter) Mandelson like clarity saying:
“Ireland understand what’s happened. Just as there are English boys who want to play for Ireland, sometimes there are Ireland players who want to play for England. It works both ways,”
That’s a statement with more than a dash of Orwellian doublespeak.
This type of country hopping has to be eradicated., it is a blight on the international game. Whilst it may be an expedient short-term measure to accelerate the development of fledgling rugby league nations, it is detrimental in the longer term even to that seemingly laudable aim.
Britain are not the only, maybe not even the worst, offenders in this type of shenanigans; indeed the French are trying to do it with the a trio of Catalans-based Aussies right now. And you can see it from the players point of view, it’s another way to get international honours and a bigger pay check next contract.
But seeing it from all viewpoints doesn’t remove the negative message it sends out to observers of the sport.
Put enough of those negatives together and you’ll soon build an image that you’re not to be taken seriously.
PS: I almost forgot … for the moment they’re just in the England train-on squad, well you know what? If they don’t make the final cut for the England squad, go on guess what … oh, yes, they can be Irish again.