State of the game .. (1)

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Four nations failure by England RL, engage Super League playoff side Celtic Crusaders in administration, Blackpool Panthers dismissed from the Co-operative Championship after one of their more successful seasons.

I’ve spent the past week trying to think of something profound to say about international rugby league; I still am.

All I can think to say is that as a pre-teen I was excited to watch black and white coverage of the 1972 World Cup final from France. We tied it but won. And then as a teenager I watch the strange dual-continent format World Cup and the 1978 touring Australians both competitive affairs.

Since then, and more particularly since the 1982 Australian Invincible tour, it has been nothing but a demoralising catalogue of dismal failure after dismal failure at international level.

Whatever it is that prevents Britain succeeding at International level it cannot be lack of talent; just think of some of the big names who have represented England and or Great Britain through three decades of failure, Sean Edwards, Gary Schofield, Paul Sculthorpe, Andy Farrell, Andy Gregory, Kevin Ward, Kris Radlinksi, Gary Connolly, Jonathon Davies,

Yet almost thirty years on and still we hear the occasional ‘Britain is catching-up’ cliche trundled out. I don’t know about you … but I just don’t believe it anymore. In fact I barely even watch it anymore. And that’s as profound a condemnation of the international scene as I can get.

I’m a diehard lover of rugby league; have followed the game since I was old enough to walk the couple of miles from home to Knowsley Road, yet I’m almost totally turned-off by the traditional international game. I’d rather follow the emerging nations.

What impression do we think the less committed rugby league observer gets when the tune into England games?

They must wonder, as I do, who took the super out of Super League?

The financial constraints that force the dwindling size of super league squads, the extra Super League teams that dilute the talent pool, the eight team playoff format, the knee-jerk shrinking from the original and ground-breaking World Ciub Championship, the reliance on second-rate Antipodeans for line-breaks and power-plays all have diluted the Super League brand and under-mined its ability to deliver quality international players in sufficient numbers to challenge the Australia, New Zealand axis.

That same Super League formula was also supposed to raise the French to genuinely competitive international force. The same French side that couldn’t manage to beat a patchwork Wales side in front of its own passionate fans.

Now is the time to swallow the rhetoric and face the harsh facts of reality; from that perspective Super League is a massive failure.

What we need to do is analyse why that is and act now to fix it. Failure to do so will eventually lead to the competition’s total collapse. It is after all utterly dependent upon the support of one (count them) television broadcaster. If Sky decide that its worth only half as much where does that leave the game? It leaves rugby league facing a massive financial shortfall and the top players looking for long term security elsewhere; whether in rugby union or in the Australian NRL.

You may think rugby union is in the same boat and to an extent it is, but they have a much more lucrative Premiership contract, are under-pinned by a financially sound RFU, have a thriving international game and multiple TV contracts; having already made inroads with ESPN.

I’ve no indication as to whether the RFL have made any contact with ESPN to open negotiations, but if they have not then they are guilty of selling the game short, regardless of how they were received by the world leaders in sports coverage. It is vital that they seek alternative revenue streams to obtain leverage in future negotiations with Sky.

Lack of week-on-week intensity in the domestic league has often been mooted as the missing link between talented individuals and a competitive national team. Yet despite best intentions and pots of TV money all the RFL have succeeded in doing is turning Super League into the old First Division.

The thing the RFL have consistently failed to grasp – and I understand some of the reasons for this – is that the words EXPANSION and ELITE are mutually exclusive. The only exception to that rule being when by expansion you mean ‘adding something of equal quality’.

I believe the professional domestic game needs a root-and-branch reorganisation. Unpopular decisions need to be made. Realities need to be faced,

And as much as I hate to admit it … Maurice Lindsay’s original vision for Super League bears another long hard examination; but that’s for another article.

[to be continued]