Editor’s Column: NRL must stop tapping up our players and Toronto fall out

After spending half of last season under the “will he, won’t he” cloud of eventual Man of Steel Ben Barba, the last thing St Helens would want going in to next season is speculation over another of their stars.

Golden Boot winner Tommy Makinson, apparently unknown to some “experts” in Australia, has reportedly been speaking to his former coach Nathan Brown, now in charge of the NRL’s Newcastle Knights.

My initial feeling, no doubt like others, was “so what” given they would have likely forged a good relationship during Brown’s time at St Helens.

But while the Knights did quell reports of talks of him moving for 2019, they hardly dampened the fire – publicly putting Brown on record as saying he could be an option at the end of the year, despite the fact Makinson is barely two years in to new a four-year deal.

Now, I have no problem with gossip and speculation; after all, football thrives off it and dominates the column inches as a result.

But when an official club story pushes this sort of thing out, something just doesn’t sit right with me.

The official NRL site is very much run as a publication these days, and of course we’re biased, but this and the club accounts are still officially representing their clubs and certainly blurs the lines between club journalism and independent coverage.

In previous years, Super League clubs have been relatively accommodating of the requests of players to pursue a career Down Under, but given how it’s starting to turn in to an annual circus for the top clubs and distracting from their own progress, that may well change.

Especially as Super League nears a pivotal point in its history and there’s a desire to retain the best players – and not only that, but attract higher calibre players to the competition, as has been seen by the recruitment of the likes of St Helens and Leeds this winter.

As one club source said to me, “what if it was the other way round?”

There’s been a significant fall-out over the exclusion of Toronto Wolfpack from the Challenge Cup in 2019.

The Wolfpack were apparently asked to pay for a fee to enter, as were Catalans and Toulouse, to cover potential losses should they make the final.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on here, you can’t win.

Initially, fans criticised the Wolfpack for not taking part, which in turn hands them a competitive advantage in the Championship, given they have two weeks off in three in the run up to the Easter weekend.

But when it became clear that they did want to compete, that position changed.

The discussion of Toulouse is redundant, as they had decided not to compete last season even when there wasn’t a bond for entering.

RFL member clubs are obliged to enter the Challenge Cup.

As non-member clubs, Toronto, Toulouse and Catalans are invited to participate. This year, a cost was attributed to this, no doubt as a result of the financial implications of 2018, which saw Catalans reach and win the final, as well as the losses the RFL incurred from the Denver test debacle.

Various accusations of being tinpot have been chucked at the governing body, but they are in a no win situation.

They are being responsible to their member clubs, trying to ensure that they don’t continue to lose money. The game, or its clubs, are hardly in a position to do that.

There is the theory that Toronto’s participation can draw more commercial revenue and fans, but that’s a gamble that perhaps isn’t worth taking right now, as it’s all based on hypothetical growth and if, buts and maybes.

A valid query was raised on Twitter today to which maybe someone has the answer – could an insurance policy not have covered the unlikely eventuality of the Wolfpack reaching Wembley?

It’s unfortunate that Toronto have come along at a time where the game has been unstable and trying to find its feet again after a disastrous decade of leadership.

It’s also unfortunate that this has taken the headlines away from the entry of Red Star Belgrade, another interesting development for rugby league; and also dampened the recent positivity that the RFL had managed to generate by their Wembley and 1895 Cup announcement.

The balance must be found between embracing theirs, and other project, as well as ensuring stability for the existing clubs, who have kept this apparently always dying sport going for the best part of 125 years.