Rugby League Week #13: One big happy family…

So, it appears that Salford won’t have to call on Ian Watson, Iestyn Harris’s pet dragon and that camp fellow off Coronation Street at Hull FC tomorrow after all.

Phew. Thank goodness for that. For a moment there, the so-called ‘rugby league family’ (pass the sick bucket) was threatening to reveal itself for exactly what it is: a sentimental pile of old tosh.

On second thoughts, scratch that. For a moment there, the ‘rugby league family’ WAS cast in its true light. Which is to say, a figment of the imagination, a mass dream state, a myth or comfort blanket we like to wrap ourselves in to ward off the general indifference of the actual big bad sporting world.

Group hug!

I tweeted something to that effect the other night and was, of course, immediately rebuked for … taking Salford’s side. Not a single person, it seemed, understood that the target of my rapier-like satire (!) was the phoney notion that we are all in this thing together.

Of course, that may have been because the tweet missed its mark – and on Twitter it is notoriously easy to be misunderstood, as anyone who has ever tried to take up a nuanced position in 140 characters or less would doubtless agree.

Or it might just be an excuse to trot out that Paul Simon line: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

But either way, the response sort of backed up my point.

“If they weren’t so dirty, they wouldn’t have a problem,” said one. “Good on Hull [for knocking back Salford’s request to postpone the game].”

“I think that’s unfair Tony,” said another. “Other teams have suffered injury and suspension (Hull FC being one of them) and fielded the youth.”

“It’s a professional sport. No sympathy whatsoever. They’ll beat Hull anyway…”

And a favourite from my old mate and lifelong Airlie Bird Trevor Gibbons at BBC Leeds: “We’ve got a few players out too Tony – any chance of a charity single? We could do with all the help we can get.”

The thing is, I actually agree with pretty much all of it – with a couple of caveats – especially the comment about league first and foremost being a professional sport (except when it comes to balls, stickers and Challenge Cup draws obviously).

But again, that’s my point. This is not a family. It is a professional sport and a very competitive one too. Any hint of weakness is pounced upon, red in tooth and claw, by rival fans, coaches and administrators. And that is exactly how it should be. Though matters can sometimes over-heat, it’s part of the fun of it.

There do remain, however, those caveats. A very obvious one is the duty of care (as an aside, when did league get so obsessed with vacuous management speak?) we owe the players; on a rugby league pitch there is very real physical danger, especially at the pro and semi-pro level.

Mismatches not only make for dull spectacles, they invite injury and worse, so are best avoided. It’s a scenario that has plagued the Challenge Cup for ages and a problem Super League needs like snow on the tenth of October.

Calling a game off due to shortage of players would be a bad look, yes, and set all sorts of precedents. A postponement in such circumstances would be a real crossing the Rubicon moment, sending a message that top-flight rugby league in this country was structurally unsound, ready to fall over even.

And the answer is indeed very obviously structural. If first team squads can’t be larger, then a compulsory second team or academy competition should be a must for everyone in Super League and the Championship at least.

But of course a return to that situation would cost money, wouldn’t it? And that’s money our clubs are either unable or unwilling to spend; one more reality cheque that no one in rugby league is ready to cash.

If rugby league really is a family, it is not only a dysfunctional one but skint and relying on hand-outs. There’s no disgrace in that. It’s about accepting that that’s how things are and getting on with it.

In my tweet, I referred to Salford’s time of need, as at the time they were claiming that as many as twenty players would be missing for one reason or another, a fate now happily avoided. And that phrase brought this reply: “What do you mean time of need? They have injuries not life threatening diseases.”

And in that statement I think we get to the nub of this family business.

For while there is no such thing as one big happy ‘rugby league family’, there very definitely is such a thing as the rugby league community.

It’s there when (most often former, though not always) players fall on hard times or endure health problems – as seen in the excellent work of charities like RL Cares and State of Mind. It’s there in the volunteers who wash kits and cut pitches at amateur clubs up and down the land every Saturday.

And it’s there in the fact that this sport is still hanging on at all, having been bashed from corner flag to goalpost by recession, depression, war and discrimination for 120 years. When life has been at its toughest, rugby league’s friends have pulled their chosen sport through; may it be that way forever.

Just as long as the action required has not been in any way to the detriment of our own favourite club, of course. For that would run contrary to human nature.

Yes, rugby league friends. That will do for me.

What is it they say? You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family? Enough with the self-satisfied sentimentality, let’s face reality.

And while we are it, let’s do so with an air of friendly rivalry.

Another aspect of the Salford crisis/debacle* (*delete as preferred) was the opportunity it gave for Dr Koukash’s critics to go back on the warpath.

Variously, he was derided as “an embarrassment”, “a joke” and similar, while the man himself had a pop back by flicking two metaphorical fingers at those who “hate the Salford club” via his column in the Manchester Evening News.

All good box office and, along with being another heart-warming example of rugby league’s purest family values, a reminder of how precious a presence the Red Devils owner is.

Derek Beaumont cuts a similar figure at Leigh, and the lead-up to the pair’s Challenge Cup clash the other week and indeed the storm clouds in its aftermath were entertainment central.

As the WWE has worked out to its vast financial advantage – along with darts and boxing – characters are the lifeblood of the soap opera that is pro’ sport. Football is stacked with them, so all-consuming a presence that it really doesn’t have to try. Whatever the ECB thinks, cricket needs its Kevin Pietersens.

League too needs as many such headline-grabbing figures or viral-ready superstars as it can muster. So let loose your Kevin Naiqamas and their wonder try assists. Let loose your Anthony Gellings, whose sheer unpredictability makes him the most entertaining Super League presence since Captain Thunder.

And let loose the non-stop gob of Dr Marwan Koukash, who displays a fine sense of humour even as others betray their lack of one. May he never put a sock in it.


Finally, this week, a parting mention for Lance Hohaia, who has just announced his retirement from rugby league with immediate effect, citing “recurrent post-match concussion-type symptoms” that some news sources have traced directly back to Ben Flower’s fist.

This seems like dangerous territory to me and it would be wise to wait, not only from a legal but moral point of view, before casting such stones.

I can’t though go along with wider criticism of the media for identifying Hohaia as the victim of that attack often in the very first paragraph or line, ahead of the Kiwi’s undoubted achievements in, say, the 2008 World Cup final and NRL.

The simple fact is that for the wider world, last year’s Grand Final events were the most obvious way into the story. A player who the general public would otherwise not have known from Adam Swift became instantly recognisable.

Complaints directed at the BBC and others such sources were another example of how we leaguies’ tend to view everything through an RL bubble, which again has the effect of distancing the game from reality.

That being said, the over-riding sentiment was sound. There was indeed much more to Lance Hohaia than a single moment of madness at Old Trafford.

At the top of his game, his skills and versatility, at full-back or in the halves, were a pleasure to watch. And for Saints, his experience in choppy waters has been invaluable. How bizarre then that the announcement of his departure should end so curtly: “St Helens will make no further comment on the matter.”

That’s hardly the send off his efforts deserve, or is there more to it?

I suppose we have little choice but to wait for the full story to unfold.

Like everyone else in the rugby league … ahem … community though, I wish a great athlete well, wherever he ends up next in life.

Tone’s Tips: Super League victories for Huddersfield, Wigan, Hull, St Helens, Warrington, Castleford. Someone to write headline about Ben Currie without reference to ‘hot stuff’.

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