It is always a thin line between playing entertaining, heart in the mouth, jaw dropping rugby and winning games and trophies. In an ideal world, players, managers and teams would play the former in order to achieve the latter, but as we all know that is not always the case. In these days of big rewards, high pressure and job insecurity in the game – especially at the highest level, if it comes to having to choose one over the other it is no surprise which one managers opt for.
That has always been the case to a certain extent, but there is a growing feeling in the game – both on the terraces and in the dressing room and boardrooms, that it is gaining pace. Though it is still the finest sport there is – and will continue to be so, it cannot sit on its laurels and expect the loyal support and following to always be there, or turn its back on the elements that made it what it is in the first place.
It is hard to deny that the last two seasons at least have not been classics, and there are several reasons for this. The added pressure on coaches to produce winning results at all costs is certainly one, fussy format changes haven’t helped either, but a big reason is the continued envious glances over to the other side of the world to what the NRL is doing. There is no doubt there are certain aspects we can learn from such a successful and dominating league, but let’s be honest, entertainment isn’t high on the list of the NRL’s attributes. People on that side of the world have been very outspoken about the need to improve the entertainment level in their game. What we need to do in the UK, is to do what we do best, play the English version of the game, go back to doing that and doing that well, and entertainment and results will follow.
As a product the Super League is in a good position. At the start of the season, bookies were finding it hard to split the top four teams, and there aren’t many leagues, or indeed sports in the world where that is the case. Throw a touch more entertainment into the mix – the bookies, a burgeoning celebrity legacy (retired Rhinos’ captain Kevin Sinfield being nominated for Sports Personality of the Year), momentous tackling and on-point technique – and it is a winning formula, which in the world of ever increasing competition for people’s time, focus and money, is essential. And there are signs that this may be happening. Two prominent coaches in the shape of Castleford’s Daryl Powell and Warrington’s Tony Smith have both recently come out stating that exciting, entertaining football that is a joy to watch is their main aim, and that has been evident on the pitch.
If these are seen to be successful, hopefully it will be the start of something new – or old – and that will benefit not just the league but the national team as well. If the players can be allowed to play their own game, the one they have been brought up to love and play, without being hamstrung by the perceived need to play in a certain manner, then it may just pay dividends come the forthcoming world cup.
Nothing will be achieved overnight, but after years – some will say decades of trying to copy the Aussies, the signs are there that we are ready – and willing to go our own way. And that can only be a good thing.