Editor’s column: The rugby league of the disillusioned

James Gordon

1st March 2020, KCOM Stadium, Hull, England; Betfred Super League, Hull FC v Catalans Dragons : Sam Tomkins (29) of Catalans Dragons can only admire the strength of Manu Ma’u (12) of Hull FC

We’re still a few weeks away from the return of rugby league on these shores.

That may go some way to easing the variety of issues that are creating divides and disappointment among virtually every different stakeholder group.

The announcement that scrums were to be scrapped for when Super League resumes, as well as the implementation of the six again rule received criticism from players this week, concerns over not just player welfare, but the lack of consultation with them.

For me, the six again rule has added a new dimension to the game since its introduction to the NRL, ensuring the game is played at a decent pace and takes away the sometimes stop-start nature of waiting for a penalty kick to touch, not to mention the sometimes disproportionate advantage it gives teams for minor penalty calls in terms of distance.

But that’s easy for me to say, I’m not playing.

It transpires there are some ex-player representatives in the discussions, though given the number of current players that took to Twitter to bemoan the decision making, perhaps this ought to be better communicated with them. And that doesn’t mean they were asked either.

Players’ union chief Garreth Carvell has his work cut out at the moment too, currently fighting the fires of the pay cuts enforced by coronavirus. That comes amidst a backdrop of some clubs, notably Wigan and Warrington, making big-money signings for 2021, while asking players to surrender a decent proportion of their pay for this season.

Clubs are in a no-win situation either – the lockdown wasn’t their fault, yet they now have to bare the brunt of paying wages with no income, paying for tests to try and get the competition re-started behind closed doors, which realistically is being done to stop them from having to return commercial and broadcast revenue, which in itself would be catastrophic for the sport.

Although it was announced games would be at neutral venues, it does seem that some clubs will have “home” advantage when the season resumes, albeit they won’t be permitted to use the home dressing room; cue some disillusioned fans.

Talk of Catalans playing at least one home game in Perpignan was a surprise too; both they and Toronto face their own challenges, and the Wolfpack particularly must be extremely frustrated at how their maiden season in Super League has panned out with no games in Canada, barring a minor miracle.

It’s tough for fans too. Clubs are now going through the process of persuading fans to take up their best option in terms of season ticket refunds – but fans shouldn’t be guilt-tripped in to just allowing the clubs to keep their money.

Joe Public has been just as affected as the clubs have during the pandemic, and while anyone who can contribute to support their club should be applauded, no supporter should be judged or considered less of a supporter if they have to, no doubt reluctantly, ask for an entitled refund for their season ticket to put food on the table.

Outside of Super League, the update that there wasn’t really an update on the Championship and League 1 season resuming – or indeed what’s happening with the Challenge Cup – frustrated clubs, players and fans alike.

There doesn’t seem to be any realistic way that the lower leagues can resume without crowds. Taking players off furlough with no income just isn’t feasible for the majority of clubs. Those with money, or those who have committed money this year for a shot at promotion, may disagree.

The lack of a decision has frustrated many – if the clubs are going to have so much of a say in the decision making, is there any real point in having a board? Just put a chairman in place and do it that way.

Mind you, that’s what Super League have sort of attempted to do with Robert Elstone, and that’s hardly been a roaring success. A vote to get back in to bed with the RFL was narrowly defeated 7-5 recently, which suggests that a decent proportion of the top flight are disillusioned with the path the game has taken since they voted for it a couple of years ago.

Even away from our domestic competition, expansionists aren’t happy at people asking questions of the proposed new EuroXIII’s competition, which has been causing a stir on Twitter with its announcement of 16 participating teams across Europe, as well as draft locations in both hemispheres.

It remains to be seen how an pan-European amateur competition can be funded and sustained, and that appears to be a challenge that the RLEF are taking on too, with the governing body for the sport across Europe planning their own competition.

We’ve lost the Ashes series and people have even been disillusioned that their Watch NRL subscription had become pointless, since Sky Sports have been showing every NRL game!

Lockdown has seen old footage, archive matches and the rugby league jukebox on RFL channels – it makes you yearn for those days, and makes you wonder whether rugby league just tries too hard to be something other than itself.