Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say at Catalans Dragons. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
How very rugby league that after such a blockbuster start to Super League’s latest New Era, when over 63,000 fans provided a 16 per cent attendance increase on the same fixtures last year; when just about every game was the epitome of competitive or won by a whisker; when at least three surprise results produced an opening round we could scarcely have dreamed of … how very rugby league that we should all be obsessing over the same tired and hoary old chestnut.
When referee James Child sent Patrick Ah Van from the field in the 23rd minute of what ended up as an amazing 12-man Widnes fight-back last Thursday, media and fans alike were outraged. ‘If they are going to send people off for that,’ they cried, in reference to a high-shot on Wigan’s Josh Charnley, ‘there won’t be many sides finishing with 13 men this year.’
Consequently, the spotlight in a sport that has always had an anti-authoritarian chip on its shoulder immediately swung back onto the officials.
Yet I suspect that Child and his colleagues who, by all accounts, tried but happily failed to bugger up the rest of the weekend’s matches, had an altogether different motive than simply assuming that everyone had stumped up their hard-earned cash just to watch them.
The answer was there on Ah Van’s chinny chin chin.
Once upon a time, beards in rugby league were rare. So much so that Aussie forward Noel ‘Crusher’ Cleal became an iconic figure in the 1980s, not only for the destructive power of his second-row running, but because he appeared to be wearing his head upside down.
So successful was he in this nascent form of self-promotion that after spending six years side-stepping the barbers of Manly-Warringah, he was able to put in a further couple of high-profile stints at, ironically, Widnes and Hull.
Today, of course, there’s more facial hair around than silly penalties (is there such a thing as a sensible penalty, by the way?). Just about every club has a squad member who looks like he’d rather be on ukulele in some hipster band or sat on a haystack in Alabama, chewing grass and swigging moonshine, sporting the sort of monstrosity in which, during the Elizabethan era, a small mouse might be found or, in these modern times, little Robbie Burrow. Even London Broncos have moved to a new training ground in Bushey.
As the grey days of winter cling stubbornly on, the first cuckoo of spring is for the moment but a distant dream. Fortunately, we have no such shortage of bearded tits.
Indeed, Child himself sports the odd clump of bum fluff, somewhat pubic in nature and transplanted from a moulting shrew. And therein, I feel, is the real issue here: beard envy.
They used to say that you could tell you were getting old when policemen – nowadays policepersons – began to get younger. In this second decade of Super League its referees and touch judges.
Just look at them. Elderly Richard Silverwood apart, who we might perhaps file under dodgy uncle, were it not for the fact that they are almost certainly evil, this lot would look entirely at home in the choir at Westminster Abbey. Ben Thaler’s shorts are pulled higher than a proud four-year-old off to his first day at nursery.
It’s not as if Ah Van’s effort is particularly outrageous, either. No one was more pleased than I when Wakefield skipper Danny Kirmond removed that Farmer Giles effort of his the other year. Presumably he kept treading on it. But look around the sides now and what do you see? Kyle Amor and Alex Walmsley at Saints. Daryl Clark and Ashton Sims at Warrington. Salford’s Rangi Chase, Huddersfield’s Chris Bailey, Leeds’s Adam Cuthbertson, Luke Gale at Castleford… need I go on? A 24-carat cast-iron beardathon.
Although to be fair, it’s no wonder the refs get a teensy bit jealous when someone like St Helens assistant coach Sean Long can swan into Langtree Park with the complexion of one of those hairless Chinese dogs, sit in the stands of a game that goes on so long it looks like delaying the opening round of Super League XXI, and then go home with a beard that Father Christmas or Catweazle would be proud of.
No, take it from me boys, if you want to stay on the field this year, invest in a Braun Series 5. Unless of course the referee is Tim Roby, a fifth columnist if ever there was one. But that’s highly unlikely since he seems to spend most of his time on the sidelines. Wonder why?
It’s a conspiracy I tells you.
Tones round two tips: Victories for St Helens, Warrington, Leeds, Wigan, Catalans and Hull KR, though the Dragons to reveal that they have actually signed Todd ‘Tucker Jenkins’ Carty out of EastEnders and Grange Hill by mistake.