Finding a vision for northern hemisphere rugby league

Edward Anderson

It’s been a while and now I’ve calmed down about the betrayal of the sport by Australia and New Zealand, we have some time for perspective.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should have delayed for a very simple reason, that being there is zero evidence that the NRL will let players come next year and there is more reason to believe they will delay again (and in effect seek to cancel the tournament all together). 

Australia has put no money forward as a bond so they have been surrendered to and no cost has been imposed. I think come June or July next year we’ll be in the exact same situation we were in this year.  

Build our own baby

If nothing else though, it should crystallise the need to build our own baby in the shape of a four or five nation tournament that does not involve any pacific nations. France requested a game in the mid-season but it appears as if we will be getting a France vs England game on the continent this year.

Sadly though, other nations such as Wales or Ireland are denied the opportunity to play England and we’re going to hear the usual delusions about this. That England are too good and they should play nations of their level, ignoring the fact this already happens and those games are financially and commercially worthless.

There is no viable northern hemisphere tournament without England in it. Will that mean some uneven scores to begin with? Inevitably but if you’re alternative is begging Australia, you don’t actually have an alternative. But no one wants to watch England vs Scotland (for example).

Wrong again, the TV audience for England vs Scotland in the 2016 Four Nations was as good and, in some cases, better than England vs New Zealand or Australia. The obsession with Australia is for rugby league tragics, not for the casual audience we are seeking to capture.  

An annual four nations with England playing every nation away and we can take England vs Jamaica to London, before a final at home. This will give the other games between say France and Wales meaning, as they seek to make a final versus England.

The game has lost £15m and the one area where we can start to claw that back is in an annual free-to-air tournament, which allows the other nations to actually capture the commercial and sponsorship income streams that would come with such a tournament. Or we can keep crying about Australia… 

Another restructure – protectionism at its finest 

On the club side, we are hearing reports of yet another restructure and once again, it appears we will get it wrong. Clearly Super League is stagnating for a variety of reasons. One, many of the stadiums are not fit for purpose being either too big (Salford or Huddersfield but bar big games, you can add Wigan and Hull FC) or not developed to a good standard (Wakefield). This means the amount of games Sky can show the product at its best is limited to the same handful of clubs (Leeds, Saints, Warrington and Catalans if they get a feed). Out of a 12-team league, that’s not a good return.

However, were the powers that be to look at the Championship they would see Toulouse, Newcastle and York all in thriving cities with the infrastructure and commercial potential to step up. 

Again though, instead of increasing Super League to 14, reducing central funding and giving room for these clubs to grow the commercial pie whilst making the product look significantly more attractive on TV, (York vs anyone in SL will look fantastic in their perfectly sized 8,000 ground, an all-French derby has the potential to transform the sport in France), we are left with the stupid idea to go to 10 teams.  

Toulouse are currently top of the Championship

So, it’s the worst of all words : More loop fixtures and the very teams that could come up and challenge the established top six are held back by an absurd bottleneck, forced to play Batley and then this will be used to show why they aren’t “ready for SL”.

We’d also ruin the Championship to boot, whilst spreading the money even thinner to teams in the Championship who will never contribute to the TV deal.

I think what clubs that don’t support an increase of SL are forgetting is that were the game to go to 10 teams in SL it would certainly be franchises and the clubs that currently don’t offer anything to the product from a TV perspective now (Salford, Giants) would certainly not be in that ten. Better to lose a few hundred thousand to two other teams than get nothing at all. 

This is all the more frustrating because despite the negativity, I don’t think the game realises how close it can be to a great top 14 SL comp. We have a big six now, add Toulouse and you get a French derby. Newcastle has the perfect set up, as well as being prepared to spend the money to challenge the established order (Newcastle vs Leeds anyone?). Wakefield will soon be sorting out their ground and this could turn them from consistent basement dwellers to getting closer to the cap. We could go within two years from a big six to 10 teams all in with a serious shout of the play-offs and a Grand Final. For a 14-team comp, that would be a great strike rate.  

The potential for rugby league in the northern hemisphere, both at club and international level, really is there. We just need to have someone with the vision to see it.