Rugby League Week #16 – A little rock of Blackpool stick

One of the most enjoyable parts of a generally uplifting Challenge Cup weekend was Jamie Peacock’s ‘Collision Cam’ on national terrestrial TV.

If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look via the BBC’s rugby league website. Here was an innovation that offered true insight into what it must be like to play professional rugby league.

Far more than a wobbly camera attached to a bald referee’s head with Velcro, anyway.

Along with revealing just how amiable opposing forwards can be these days – the old front row union must have been spinning in its zimmer – it had more biff!s, thud!s and kerpow!s than an episode of Batman. Only this was real.

By the end of which, you could only feel admiration for mic-ed up Peacock, the ‘melon’ Ryan Hall and their fellow players, and empathy with what they put their bodies through every week just for our entertainment.

We already knew that, of course. Well, those of us with any sense did. But to actually see – and more importantly hear– it close-up, well… you’d hope it might give a few of the more one-eyed among us pause for thought before ripping in quite so viciously against players of other clubs, or indeed getting stuck into our own for so-called ‘lack of effort’ after a disappointing loss.

The ‘Collision Cam’ was a reminder too of how little we appreciate the pressures on others and their talent generally, in life and league in particular.

That last remaining Australian coach in Super League we want fired because he is so obviously not up to the job is most likely hidebound by injuries and other circumstances beyond his control.

That half-back who just leaked a ‘soft try’ might, in fact, be seeing stars, bells and tweeting birds having hit his head on a stray knee only seconds before.

That ‘lazy journalist’ who ‘saw a different game’ may have had a speed-written report to deliver on the whistle despite a last-gasp game-turning score.

That referee who missed a clear foot in touch may have been unsighted and badly advised by a touch-judge who was himself distracted by a supporter wondering if it wasn’t long past his bedtime by now.

And that TV commentator ‘everyone’ reckons is rubbish and annoying and past it and whatever is actually doing remarkably well to keep concentration in the face of all on-field hell breaking loose, identifying players instantaneously. In any case, the real reason they don’t like him is because they’ve simply got used to the sound of his voice and, as you know, familiarity breeds contempt.

Before you criticise a man (or woman), walk a mile in his (or her, though do go steady if she’s in high-heels) shoes, and all that.

Consider also the plight of the RFL innovator. The same RFL innovator, perhaps, who dreamt up Millennium Magic as a crowd-drawing event, as reliable a part of the Super League calendar now as Aussies droning on about Easter.

And from this year – and indeed this very weekend – the Championship clubs too will join the party, with seven innovative ‘Summer Bash’ games (including League 1’s iPro Sport Cup final) staged at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.

Yet already – and this must surely be some sort of record even in rugby league, given how there hasn’t been a single minute played yet – there have been calls to ditch the concept amid accusations that it is all a complete waste of time, most notably from Bradford Bulls boss James Lowes.

A mere two days before Swinton Lions and North Wales Crusaders were due to get the ball rolling at noon on the Saturday, the never less than straight-talking coach was calling the inaugural trip pointless in the Telegraph & Argus.

You can read the piece in full at the T&A website, but this was no random thoughtless rant. The timing may have been suspect – though fortunately the Met Office were more on-message with sunshine predicted on day one at least – but many of Lowes’s arguments were far from unreasonable.

In short, they once again brought into question the wisdom or otherwise of staging so many full-on 80-minute games back to back; invited reflection on just what it is that such occasions are designed to achieve; and wondered whether there might not in fact be better ways to deliver on those ambitions.

With player welfare in mind, the pugnacious ex-hooker also raised a valid concern re the state of the Bloomfield Road playing surface: ‘They might just as well put a stand around Blackpool beach,’ he said.

In short, if you ask James Lowes a question, you can expect an honest answer and only in an Alice in Wonderlandhelter-skelter world adrift in spin, self-delusion and platitudes could anyone object to that.

Yet – and I write this as someone who has never liked the Magic Weekend concept from day one – it also feels wrong to go in too hard on an event that, at the very least, is any excuse for existing rugby league fans to come together in a shared party atmosphere, enjoy a daytrip to the seaside and have a little fun.

Complaints about the name ‘Summer Bash’ helping to promote a violent image of the game are also on dodgy ground. A bash is also a party. Rugby league can indeed be a bash-a-thon (I refer m’learned readers once again to the Jamie Peacock Collision Cam). So actually, for once, it’s a rather clever title.

Well, the ‘bash’ bit is. Summer in May is a trifle optimistic, though it looks like they may have got away with it in 2015. Thank you, Tomasz Schafernaker.

And certainly, in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester with Super League since 2007, the crowds have rolled up and had a ball, though not in numbers that would settle the debate one way or the other when placed in direct comparison with the turn-out in regular domestic rounds.

Nor, for me, has the problem ever been one of geography.

In this weekend’s case, for all that the grand old seaside town is not the tourist draw it once was, more pound shop parade than Cardiff city centre and in desperate need of a brush-up, saying that you’d rather play Halifax at the Shay than Blackpool does risk making you look like a bit of a sourpuss.

Furthermore, Blackpool and league go way back. Members of the original Northern Union Lancashire Second Competition in 1898-99 … semi-professional side from 1954-1987 … Blackpool Gladiators in early 1990s … home to final of Northern Rail Cup from 2005-2012 … so the old ‘concentrate on our own doorstep’ arguments won’t wash either.

Blackpool is on our doorstep, though admittedly these days sat there half-cut on alcopops, when not staggering along the front in fur coat and no knickers.

No, what has always put me off about the ‘Magic’ concept is that it is simply too much of a good thing. I know I’d be over-faced and get bored.

One game? Fine. Bring it on. Two? Well, okay then, though I’ll probably be checking my phone by half-time. Three? And then sit through it all again tomorrow? Forget it. Who with any imagination wants six – or even seven – consecutive courses of anything? I doubt even Snow White could handle that.

Which is why the vast majority of seats remain empty, of course. The majority of fans watch their own team’s match, maybe 20 minutes of the games before and after it, and then – as that Aussie agriculture minister put it in relation to Johnny Depp’s dogs – bugger off, either back from whence they came or in the direction of the nearest boozer.

But then this year they had to go and take the Super League Weekend to the North East, didn’t they? A place I need little excuse to visit and which might, indeed, be the one venue that will actually benefit long-term from having twelve RL teams (13 if you count York on the Friday night) clogging up the toon at once.

So this year, for the first time ever, I’ll be putting the actual experience to the test rather than just sampling parts of it on the box wandering in and out between bouts of gardening. Geordieland will be welcoming, that I do know.

And in the meantime, if you are off to Blackpool this weekend, I hope the games are competitive and enjoyable and that you have an absolute blast (or a nice restful kip, if things do start to feel a bit drawn out).

As it’s never wise for a coach to complain about anything before a game, I’ve a hunch that Halifax will beat Bradford in the Saturday night showdown.

So if that is the case and you spot Jimmy Lowes on the Golden Mile in a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat afterwards, buy him a candyfloss from me in commiseration.

On second thoughts, it’s more likely the hat will read ‘Kiss My Arse’.

 

 

Tone’s Tips: Victories for Huddersfield, Warrington, Leeds, Saints, Wigan and … gasp … Wakefield. Little Rob Burrow to be renamed Spicy Sausage Rob Burrow.

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