Rugby League Week #8 – Flower power and choosing sides

If the Jeremy Clarkson hoo-ha proves little else, it’s that sports fans aren’t the only ones whose moral compass is aligned according to the team they support.

It surely doesn’t matter how huge a fan of Top Gear you are (or aren’t). That kiss-my-arse celebrities shouldn’t go around verbally abusing and then punching their so-called subordinates really did ought to go without saying.

Clarkson’s dodgy track record and the Beeb’s prior admissions of a bullying culture meant there was only ever going to be one outcome. And it had less to do with political correctness than merely doing the right thing.

As Wigan prepare to welcome Ben Flower back into the fold, now seems an apposite time to draw parallels with the workplace that is rugby league. I doubt the sport has ever had such a high-profile misdemeanour, yet this particular big guy hits little guy scenario was dealt with impeccably.

The response of both Wigan and their Grand Final opponents St Helens did the game proud after last year’s now infamous Super League Grand Final. Flower was sent from the field, the RFL banned him for six months (sort of) and the two clubs dusted themselves down and got on with preparing for 2015.

In sport as everywhere, there will always be one or two hotheads. But, in general, the reaction of both sets of fans was equally impressive. Blind Freddy could see what the Welshman had done – along with just about the rest of the planet via YouTube – so they sucked it up and that was that. Well, until Flower runs out in front of the Sky cameras on April 16 against Warrington anyway.

All of that, though, was the exception rather than the rule.

Week in, week out, we see examples of fans rallying around their own players whatever the reason they are in trouble. If our own sons or daughters were assaulted in their student halls of residence, for example, we’d be apoplectic. Yet should the victim be unknown to us and the perpetrator kick or pass a ball with our favourite team, all is suddenly forgiven or at least excused.

At the next opportunity, we might even applaud them onto the field.

Similarly, incidents of foul play and visits to the Disciplinary are all too often interpreted through whether or not the accused committed the alleged offence in or against our colours. If wearing our kit, the suspect is plainly innocent, the slide into the in-goal area poorly timed. When our centre is kneed in the back, the book should be thrown at his attacker.

It really is a quite childish and laughable attitude, though I suppose we are all prone to taking such positions, myself included, though less so in rugby league these days. Loyalty to a group or cause is a very powerful draw.

The word we most often hear when Red Hall sentences have been passed down is ‘consistency’. All we want is consistency. Yet is consistency really what we are after, when a scrupulously fair interpretation of crime and punishment would see our own players and coaches dealt with in exactly the same way as everyone else?

Somehow, I doubt it. In league as in life, what we really mean when we demand consistency is that we want everything to go consistently in our favour.

 

There is something similar going on with Salford Red Devils.

From a neutral perspective – or at least neutral but with a rugby league hat on – the presence of Marwan Koukash in our sport can only be a good thing.

He has money, lots of it and appears willing to spend it. He is media savvy and entertaining … not short of an opinion and churns out innovative ideas in the vicinity of a market – Manchester – that league has never seriously tapped.

Sure, the Doc has his faults. Who doesn’t? He has a seriously short fuse, tends towards rugby league naïveté and is impatient for success. Much of which can be put down to enthusiasm – he seems to do okay in horseracing.

And on the whole, Koukash has faced and overcome battles that most of us can only have nightmares about. He gives hope to an important club that has been too long in the doldrums and puts a smile on the face of the game.

Not that any of this seems to be enough for some who, if social media is a guide, take perverse delight in firing barbs at Salford’s owner and his problems, not least in attracting a crowd of the size required to make financial sense of his investment. After around twenty years writing about the game, it’s an attitude I ought to have grown used to by now, though I still find it absolutely bizarre.

Koukash, of course, is a notorious straight-talker too – one more reason for those who are discomfited by strident opinions, especially when flavoured with humour, to find his presence unsettling.

Last night, on the TV chat show Rugby AM, Koukash pointed out that low attendances are costing Salford – and therefore himself – as much as £100,000 a game. It’s a situation he blames on the awkward location of the AJ Bell Stadium, which is indeed easy enough to get into if you are driving, but poorly served by public transport and trickier to get out of than North Korea.

 “I doubt we will average more than 3,000 fans this season,” he admitted. “When you budget for an 8,000 average, you are talking about £60,000 a game in terms of lost revenue from spectators [other costs not included].

“We are listening to the fans, such as bringing the Leeds game forward to 1pm to avoid a clash with the Manchester derby. But realistically I don’t think we will get big crowds even for the big games.”

The now concluded visit of Tim Sheens as a short-term advisor gave rise to optimism. “He offered great advice to everyone and I would love him to come over permanently,” Koukash went on. “I learnt a lot from him and he helped identify many of the mistakes that we were making. I and everyone at this club will continue to work hard and give everything to succeed.”

The jury remains out on whether anything like 8,000 members of a City of Salford public of 218,000 would, in the immediate future anyway, be persuaded to view top-flight rugby league as attractive if they were chauffeur-driven to the ground and showered with free beer and biscuits, though Greater Manchester does have a population of not far short of three million.

The reality of which may or may not conspire to push Marwan Koukash over the edge in time – or at least send him packing to the glamour of Australia.

But whose good does it serve to dance prematurely on Salford’s grave to a tune of club-centric and petty small-mindedness? Certainly not Super League’s.

 

Tone’s Tips: Victories for Salford, St Helens, Warrington, Castleford, Wigan and Leeds Rhinoceri. Uproar as Championship side fails to field two players named Reg.

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