Three days until the most audacious introduction to a Super League season yet. And, rugby league being rugby league, the arguments already rage. Our great game was born out of an argument. It is quite simply the most political sport of all.
Rugby league has, for its entire existence, been split down the middle with expansionists arguing for one way forward and the so-called flat-cappers arguing for another.
There was, and occasionally still is, the RFL and BARLA squabbling night and day.
And then there’s the supposedly ‘positive’ types and the supposedly ‘negative’ types – the Eddie Hemmings and the Garry Schofields for example. Is it better for the game that someone in the media says that everything’s fine and dandy when it might not be in order to promote the sport; or is it better to speak out, constructively criticise and ask difficult questions, but probably make yourself unpopular in the process?
Take the media. Look at poor old Tony Hannan, writer and publisher of over 20 damn fine rugby league books, copping all sorts of abuse for opining yesterday on Twitter that the Magic Weekend is a waste of time and that it should be scrapped.
Then there’s the Guardian’s Andy Wilson who, for reasons I can’t fathom out, is regarded as ‘negative’ on internet message boards, even though he’s staunchly stuck by the Magic Weekend from day one. But I see him as the only daily-newspaper journalist who has a good record of breaking stories and one of the few that’s willing to express a strong opinion about something. Aren’t they the things that what we want from a journalist?
And I remember writing in my Rugby League World editorial in 2007 before the inaugural Magic Weekend that the concept had an air of pointlessness about it and that I couldn’t see it being a winner. Guess who was the only journo not to get invited to the official media bash that weekend!
Debate is good and if it means that people are talking about rugby league rather than something else then what’s the problem, even if that talking point is deemed to be a slightly ‘negative’ one? For the toughest game of all, there aren’t half a lot of people out there who get their knickers in a twist when someone comes along with an opinion they don’t like.
As for the season itself, I won’t bore with you with my predicted Super League ladder. Like most, I think that Warrington and Wigan will be the teams most likely to contest the big one at Old Trafford and I fancy the Wire to prevail. But I certainly like the look of Wigan for the World Club Challenge and I think they might just roll back the years by winning at Wembley as well.
My Man of Steel prediction is Warrington’s Michael Monaghan and I reckon that if Ben Bolger at Harlequins continues his impressive progress he’ll be the relative unknown who we’ll all know about at the end of the year. I’ll also predict that young George Burgess, who has impressed everyone so far at Souths since moving from Bradford, will make at least one NRL appearance this year.
On the back of their appointment of Mick Potter as coach, Bradford are my tip to be the biggest improvers while I feel that it could be a tough year for Leeds and St Helens. I’m not sure that either club has made a smart coaching appointment – Royce Simmons hasn’t been a head coach for ten years and he didn’t make a great fist of either the Hull or Penrith jobs.
Brian McDermott’s last couple of years at Harlequins were an absolute nightmare, and their fans seemed glad to see the back of him. It will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of a top job like the Rhinos as he always appeared to me to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown in post-match press conferences when he was in London. The simplest of questions regularly seemed likely to tip him over the edge – most notably at Millennium Magic in 2008 when the Quins spectacularly chucked away a game against Catalans that they had completely dominated for 70 minutes.
He may well grow into the job, but, on the evidence to hand, he needs time to adapt to a bigger club and to the increased spotlight, which I don’t think he’ll relish at first. The side itself, meanwhile, appears to be in an understandable transitional phase after those Grand Final successes of 2007, 2008 and 2009.
But, hey, that’s just my opinion. Whatever happens, I hope the 2011 rugby league season provides you with a bucketload of great moments, whoever you support. In my case it’s Workington Town who, as I write, have just won at Whitehaven. The last time they did that (1993), Des Drummond was on the wing! How time flies…
follow Richard on Twitter: @richdelariviere
also check out Richard’s website of rugby league articles from 2005 to 2011 – www.richarddelariviere.co.uk