Brian McDermott comments: ashamed of rugby league?

James Gordon
Brian McDermott

Eyebrows were raised when Brian McDermott was appointed Featherstone coach following his controversial ‘small towns in the north’ comment when at Toronto.

But in trying to defend those comments, he has seemingly stuck the boot in further to Super League.

But for me, it begs the question – why are (some) people ashamed of rugby league?

McDermott on that Sky Sports interview

Brian McDermott made his comments after Toronto beat Featherstone in the 2019 Million Pound Game.

Speaking at Featherstone’s unveiling of three signings this week, he stood by the comments.

He said: “I was astonished that people thought having Toronto in Super League wasn’t a good idea. The point I was making was that the growth of Super League doesn’t lie any more with the small towns in the north of England.

But it was the wrong time to say it and it was insensitive of me to say that, given that people could have taken offence. I regret saying it on that platform at that stage but I stand by the comment.”

I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to realise that in a perfect world, Super League would be made up of big city teams.

But there needs to be a sense of realism; and that’s surely one that current Super League owners are tuned in to.

Toronto’s demise was unfortunate given the context, but to stick the boot in to the places that have carried rugby league for more than 100 years was unnecessary.

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Featherstone won’t grow Super League

McDermott’s task this year is to get Featherstone to the supposed promised land of Super League.

Given their efforts in the Championship over the past decade or so, on and off the field, they shouldn’t be begrudged that chance should they earn it.

On that, McDermott said: “I think if we get promoted, Featherstone would be a great addition to Super League. I think it’s a very good club that’s self-sustaining. But I don’t think Featherstone is going to grow Super League.

“I don’t think having Featherstone in Super League would make anybody from North America, South Africa, Asia, Russia or Australia take note. Not from any impactful degree.”

The question has to be why is it Super League’s responsibility for anyone in those areas to take notice.

Plus how realistic is it to do that given major locations like Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham within touching distance of elite rugby league aren’t engaged.

On St Helens success

One of the growing criticisms of Super League is that there have been only four winners.

Leeds helped McDermott become the most successful coach in the competition’s history, but it is St Helens who are current holders.

Saints have won three titles in a row and are showing little sign of abating.

Whether Catalans winning the competition would make any noticeable difference remains to be seen; even a second French team and a Grand Final appearance hasn’t persuaded French broadcasters to invest.

He said: “What St Helens have done in winning three in a row is brilliant and they have my full respect for sure but Saints keeping winning Grand Finals is not going to grow Super League.”

Yet one of the biggest sports brands in the world, FC Barcelona, sent St Helens a congratulatory message following their latest success.

Toronto grabbing attention

We will never know what impact Toronto Wolfpack might have had on Super League.

The pandemic came at a typically inconvenient time for rugby league; but it was the Wolfpack’s shock Million Pound Game defeat to London that prevented them reaching the top flight sooner.

Brian McDermott added: “Toronto polarised opinions and it grabbed attention. Whether it’s negative or not doesn’t matter, it grabbed attention.”

Ultimately, Toronto existed because one man pumped in tens of millions until he didn’t anymore.

The recent North American Rugby League announcement is positive, if underwhelming.

It remains to be seen what legacy comes from the reported £20m investment.

There’s nothing stopping anyone investing similar amounts in whatever city they want.

But as seen, if not done right, it does little to grow the player pool or revenues from outside.

The impact of St Helens in its local community is significant; likewise, the fact Featherstone could have a professional sports team in a small conurbation should be a quirk and celebration of rugby league’s uniqueness.

Everyone wants rugby league to improve – sticking the boot in to its foundation and positives doesn’t help it to grow.

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