Rugby League Week #1

Welcome to a new era, new season and new website for Forty-20, the rugby league monthly with the alternative spirit.

Since our very first issue in July 2011, we’ve always tried to do things a bit differently at the magazine, taking the game seriously but not too seriously and all that. So we are as chuffed as the pea in James Child’s whistle to be joining our like-minded partners Love Rugby League in this new online venture.

In case you are unfamiliar with Forty-20, the paper version comes out on the 13th day of every month. Our intention here is to give you a little bit extra in real time, whether that’s archive features, teasers for the issue ahead or a couple of weekly columns.

Usually, the first of those – The Morning After – will be written by my co-editor Phil Caplan and appear every Monday, looking back at the round just gone. Then on the Thursday, it’ll be my turn, looking ahead to the games to come and dealing with the issues of the week just gone.

As ever with Forty-20, though, we are committed to unearthing new journalistic voices, so the door is open for reader contributions too.

 

Like most people at Victoria Wharf, Manchester, last Sunday, I very much enjoyed the official launch of Super League XX.

And as an aside, aren’t those roman numeral appendages finally starting to look groovy? Can’t wait for Super League CCXXXVIII (that’s 238, FYI).

In temperatures reminiscent of Watersheddings in deepest winter and under ultra violet light, the whole event went with a bit of a swing. The venue, just over the road from Old Trafford, was awash with captains, coaches and, most encouragingly, media of every description, these latter attendees being particularly welcome as the profile of rugby league has shrunk alarmingly in recent years.

It does seem to me that in terms of promoting a ‘one game philosophy’ and mood of unity within the sport, the New Era concept has already succeeded. If the crowds for pre-season friendlies are anything to go by, the existing league public is as hungry, perhaps hungrier, than ever. And that surely has to be down to a perception that the game just got more organic. The path to the top (and bottom) has re-opened; we are once again all in this thing together.

But where it still very much has to deliver is in delivering the goods as promised on the pitch and getting itself more widely noticed in the process, nudging league into the national consciousness. The signs, though, are promising.

As with a growing number of folk I know (and this could just be a grumpy old man thing, although plenty of women too have been similarly afflicted), my enthusiasm for Super League has waned lately. In part, that has been down to the way in which the comp has succumbed to a speed-at-all-costs mentality, rendering much of it bland. Partly it has been down to over-fussy refereeing, general predictability of outcome and a feeling that hype has too often won out over substance. And partly it has been down to too much administrative spin and rank bad decision making at the top.

The sport’s grip on reality seems to have loosened, particularly among its more fanatical devotees. Then again, as a leaf through my own writings down the years would confirm, delusion is nothing new. And not all the game’s problems were/are of its own making.

No one could have foreseen an economic recession that remains as all-compassing and messy as Nigel Wood and Shane Richardson squabbling over a Mississippi mud pie. Times, cultures and habits do change. This grand old sport is 120 years old this year and what held good in 1915, 1935, 1955, 1975 or 1995 may not do so any longer in 2015.

Increasingly in sport, a global vision is vital and it’s a trend that will only gather pace, unless World War III erupts and we all retreat to our bunkers. The public consumes most of its sport on screens large and small these days and is a dead-set sucker for big communal events. We are all sheep now. Money makes the sporting world go around more than ever and, as a panicky satellite TV deal until 2021 confirms, we’ve still not got much of that.

So the choice is stark. Does rugby league refuse to accept its lowly place and fight back, punching above its weight just as it always has? With that in mind, initiatives like the Magic Weekend and the Summer Bash begin to make sense, particularly when staged in strategic areas like Newcastle and Blackpool. Or do we accept reality, grow from the ground up right across the country (nay, world) and celebrate what we are instead of worrying about what we are not? Do we stay small and trumpet our triumphs of social inclusion, or drive ourselves mad trying to match the cash-rich NRL?

It’s hardly a new debate, it has been around forever, though you sense it has never required more urgent resolution than at the moment.

it’s unfair to expect too much in one season. But if the ‘New Era’ hasn’t caught on in three, you really do have to wonder what the next revolution will look like.

 

Super League general manager Blake Solly’s buzz phrase on Sunday was “changing perceptions”.

“That’s the business we are in,” he said. “In 2015, we are determined to do things differently.”

And no one could say that the event following the launch, Rugby League Rocks, did not live up to that.

With celebrities (two lasses from ‘Coronation Street’), acrobats, fireworks, cheerleaders, a host of Super League and Championship players, some 500 paying punters and Sheffield indie group Reverend and the Second Markers, I mean Makers, on hand, it was all good rowdy fun, much of it aimed at a youthful audience and the sort of thing which could actually become very popular if they stick with it.

For this viewer, it felt a little like being at a recording of ’Top Gear’, but without the loud shirts, dad rock and casual racism.

Rugby league in the northern hemisphere has long lacked a bit of Sydney-style glamour, so RL Rocks was very much a move in the right direction.

It was also good to see the players so heavily involved, they are (or ought to be) promotable personalities too. I know that’s an avenue Solly and Co are very keen on pursuing and who wouldn’t wish them well with it.

Perhaps most striking, though, to those of us who have been to these things in the past, was how it all felt very much like a BBC rather than Sky event.

Previously, Super League launches have tended to be hosted by Eddie Hemmings, Stevo and the like, but not this time. Solly himself did the job at the launch, before Mark Chapman took the reins for the evening do, alongside former athlete and ‘One Show’ regular Iwan Thomas and Natalie Quirk.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Though in a year when at least two Sky rugby league shows have been dumped and pre-season previews rare, it most definitely was one for the conspiracy theorists among us.

Happily, a few days later, the excellent ’Sky Try’ initiative was unveiled at Widnes. Good. Given that we are tied together for the next six years at least, it’s for the best that we all get along.

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