Rugby League – Still the best game in the world
Rugby League – Still the best game in the world
Three days before we travel from North West Essex to Wembley to see the Rugby League World Cup semi- finals, my son has asked me to write this article on how the game of Rugby League has changed.
Using the advice that a picture is worth a thousand words I begin by showing the images above to highlight some of the obvious changes. Rugby League at the highest level is now played by fulltime elite sportsman usually in modern stadiums on excellent summer pitches.
Due to the time and commitment that full-time sportsman can give to their chosen sport the players of today are better prepared, the game is played at a quicker pace than ever and the collisions are frequently enormous.
From the opening line you may have guessed that my family now live some distance from the Rugby League heartlands and so I now only get to see the occasional live game. However, since my granddad took me to watch my first game, in the early 1960s, I remain convinced that Rugby League is the best game in the world.
Some years ago when Rugby League faced the challenge of how to referee a scrum, without slowing down the action, the decision was taken to allow a huge feed into the scrum, virtually guaranteeing one team the ball. (Refereeing the scrum in rugby union has also caused major annoyance for spectators of rugby union in recent years, this one issue alone seems to have kept Brian Moore in employment). The unforeseen consequence of these “uncontested scrums” is that almost all Rugby League players are above six feet tall and fourteen stone, with only a few notable exceptions. The idea of a pack of forwards contesting a scrum no longer applies. Having been told that unlike other team sports, providing you can run and catch there is a position for everyone in rugby, I am not sure that this is the case in Rugby League anymore. On the bright side, I suppose the youngster returning home after their first training session no longer faces the embarrassment of asking “Why does the coach say that if I work hard and listen I could make a useful prop”.
This current Rugby League World Cup Competition has been very successful. However, the success of this competition and of other high profile Grand Finals and Challenge Cup Finals should not mask the significant challenges that lie ahead. Many of the administrators at the top of the game appear to be blind to the dangers faced by this great sport. A solution needs to be found where English clubs can keep their best players and the money received from broadcasters is shared more evenly through the different tiers of the sport. It is not good for the game if our best players are going to Australia/Rugby Union and only the same few clubs in England are competing for the major trophies every year.
To resolve this significant threat to the game, I would suggest that a salary cap for a whole squad is strictly enforced, but that each club is allowed to sign one or two players who are outside this structure. In addition, promotion and relegation is reintroduced and financially supported. This will require an element of selflessness from club owners at the top of the game, which is a rare commodity in today’s professional sporting world. But, unless the game continues to blossom more Rugby League towns will lose their connection with the sport. I still cannot grasp how a once proud Rugby League town like Oldham no longer has a successful Rugby League side. In recent years the town has continued to produce some of England’s most talented players, for example; Kevin Sinfield, Paul Sculthorpe and Kyle Eastmond. I think it is accurate to claim that many of these players would have been developing when the local team was still competing at the highest level.
At some point on Saturday, I will undoubtedly cast a nostalgic thought back to when cars were scarce and it seemed like the whole town would walk down to the rugby ground, to stand on a frequently wet and cold packed terrace to cheer on the local heroes. A victory would give the whole town a lift. The match would be discussed in schools, pubs, clubs, factories, mines and mills when both the spectators and players returned to work on Monday.
On Saturday I will be taking some new converts to the modern version of the game and I look forward to hearing their views. We are enthusiastically looking forward to the game, and hopefully an English win. A World Cup win for England would be a significant boost for a sport that continues to struggle to get the press coverage it deserves. However, regardless of the result I hope the sports administrators will show wisdom in their decision making, to ensure Rugby League remains in the consciousness of the wider sporting public and equally importantly it also flourishes once again in all its historic northern strongholds.