Reasons to Love RL: Forty-20

Make no mistake, at the moment there are lots of great things happening in rugby league.

In Australia: the biggest TV deal in league history – worth a cool $1.25billion – has just been signed, with more luvverly lolly still to come. Also down under, international 9s are back on the agenda, just in time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Maybe an expanded World Club Challenge too.

Closer to home, this weekend we have a Challenge Cup Final to look forward to between two of the most entertaining sides in the game. As is now traditional, there’ll be a Year 7 Champion Schools curtain-raiser which, with the participation of Effingham, tops a decade’s impressive development work.

And speaking of development, as we wrote in the very first issue of Forty-20 magazine in July 2011: “Formerly the narrow preserve of a few counties and states in England and Australia in the main, rugby league is now planting roots at an amazing rate, both domestically and internationally.”

How about the professional and semi-professional set-up?

As viewers to satellite channel Premier Sports will testify, the level below Super League has turned out some absolute thrillers. In Super League itself, crowds are generally holding up well as clubs who not long ago would have been pleased with 3-4,000 fans at home nowadays get 7-8,000. More young players are getting their chance; referees have – on the whole – given the peas in their whistles a rest; the battle for eighth is bubbling nicely; Red Hall appears to be turning a very tidy profit…

In short, everything is wonderful, right?

If you are a subscriber to Forty-20 – aka the ‘alternative voice of rugby league’ – you can expect to read about all of this and more.

When we launched fourteen issues ago, we had a brief to to treasure the old, but embrace the new. We set out to value every player, club and nation equally, whatever their level or location. We wanted to encourage rugby league to unite like the family it so often claims to be; hunt out new journalistic talent while featuring the best, most intelligent and wittiest writing around. We were determined to bypass any bland and glossy lowest common denominator stuff and just generally have a bit of a laugh.

I hope we’ve managed most of that; the fact that we are still bobbing about in testing economic waters seems to suggest there are plenty of like-minded people like us out there. And when we get an opportunity to hit the road marked ‘positive’, we’ll take it. But even more important than positivity in our view, is realism.

I’ve no doubt that, someone, somewhere, when reading those reasons to be cheerful outlined above will have begged to differ with at least a few. Faults will have been picked, complications unearthed, doubts raised…

Yes, a $1.25billion deal is fantastic for Australian rugby league, how could it not be? But what about the rest of us? How will it impact on Super League? Will the quality imports dry up? Will our superstars chase the dollar? Is the impetus to expand down under stalled? Will any of that money find its way into the international arena? Pertinent questions all. You may well have more.

Nor will the doubts have ended there. Should 9s even be in the Commonwealth Games? Why not 13s? Or would league be even better served by encouraging its superstars to play in the Olympics, as part of the union 7s? Are Super League clubs ready for a revamped World Club Challenge? Could they compete? And anyway, how is that going to fit into the existing seasons? Wouldn’t it detract from Test matches?

It was announced this week that Jacksonville Jaguars will play NFL games in this country from 2013-2016, with a second annual UK match also in the pipeline. This year’s clash, between St Louis and New England in October, is already a Wembley sell-out. Whatever your thoughts about gridiron – and I enjoy it – can we say the same about this weekend’s Challenge Cup Final?

Is pointing such things out ‘negative’, or just facing the facts?

Yes, it’s great that the schoolboys are playing at Wembley, but what about the other years? Why have they been denied the annual trip to London this year – having to make do with Bradford instead? The ‘community’ game does indeed seem to be thriving nationally, but given BARLA’s avalanche of anti-summer press releases, more traditional clubs are worried for their future.

Dig beneath the surface of the Co-operative Championships, too, and the disquiet is palpable. Cash and spectators are at the root of it. Or rather their absence. Not uniquely to rugby league, there isn’t enough of either. Ditto Super League. Aren’t Bradford Bulls just the tip of the iceberg? How many commercially viable clubs are there? Genuinely. Leeds? Probably. Wigan? Perhaps. St Helens, Warrington, Hull, London, Huddersfield, Widnes? All would struggle without wealthy benefactors. The same in any sport, you say? Absolutely. But we are not talking about any sport, we are talking about rugby league, with its own unique set of circumstances.

Catalan Dragons? Who knows. Hull KR? Wakefield? Castleford? Salford? Bradford? Don’t talk to me about Bradford.

So, essentially, we might just about manage a reasonably competitive ten-team Super League with the current salary cap in place. If we want any more clubs than that, common sense dictates that either the salary cap has to fall or the lowlier clubs will. In which case, isn’t the argument against ‘natural’ promotion and relegation a spurious one, based upon a dangerous pipe dream of how we’d like northern hemisphere rugby league to be, rather than how it actually is?

“Referees? Better? Are you mad?” writes Mr Green Ink of Featherstone, before adding that Red Hall’s trumpeted turnover – NOT profits – are actually more to do with Sport England funding than any marketing or commercial nous. Any road, what’s all that money doing in the bank when it could be easing our club’s woes/being wasted on over-the-hill Aussies* (*delete according to taste).

I make no judgement on any of the above; simply point out how there are different ways of looking at things.

There are a couple of things I am sure of, though.

One: if you are sailing on the Titanic, there’s not much point being determinedly upbeat about the style of the deckchairs. You’d be far better off looking out for icebergs and, if that doesn’t work, finding the lifeboats.

And two: “Rugby league (like a sea cruise) is supposed to be fun. It is an entertainment designed to distract and amuse as we wend our weary way twixt this world and the next. Life is a serious enough business without allowing ourselves to forget that.” We wrote that in our first issue too.

The knack is not to get taken in by spin, think for yourself but keep a smile on your face.

Contrarianism for the sake of it is dim-witted; but then any knee-jerk reaction, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, is dim-witted.

As in any walk of life, one person’s truth-teller will be another person’s misery guts. That’s just how it is and long may it remain so.

In our book – or magazine – anyway.

Forty-20 is out on the 13th day of every month. On sale in local newsagents, WH Smiths and ASDA or by subscribing at Digital and app editions are also available.

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