Rugby League Week #9 – Super League’s new breed of fan?

Easter is not just about pigging out on chocolate and hot cross buns.

After a weekend when rugby league all but vanished, with no Super League games at all on Sunday and the iPro Sport Cup semi-finals scuppered by waterlogged pitches, a packed holiday programme is welcome.

Some coaches moan that it’s too much, but I love this part of the season. It’s like Becher’s Brook in the Grand National or Le Cote de Jenkin Road in the Tour de Yorkshire: a particularly tough one-off obstacle, psychologically as much as physically, which gives everyone that bit extra to deal with.

There always seems to be plenty of newsy titbits about also, with this particular Easter period kicking off with news of Kevin Sinfield’s retirement this autumn from serious professional sport, Terry Campese extending his stay at Hull KR and the Salford insisting that Gareth Hock won’t be stepping out for Leigh when the clubs come face to face in the Cup next weekend.

The League 1 season gets underway too, so good luck to everyone taking part in that, either as player or spectator – there will certainly be plenty at stake. For what it’s worth (ie not much), my money’s on North Wales topping the table, with promotion for one of Keighley, Newcastle, Oldham or Swinton.

Of course, all of the above will only be of interest if you take a game-wide interest in rugby league, a level of geekery that used to be commonplace but which sadly seems to be diminishing.

I’ve no doubt whatsoever that, thanks to all the derbies, the attendance aggregates will be swelled, followed by a press release trumpeting how Super League is on the up.

And so it may well be, though watched by a different kind of fan – not necessarily better or worse, just different – than used to be the case.

It’s a theory of mine (one of several!) that the summer era has bred more of a football style audience whose interest, first, last and just about everywhere in between, is planted firmly on their club and their club alone.

Though you’ll often hear talk of football fans, I reckon there are actually very few of those, proportionally speaking. There are Liverpool fans, Arsenal fans, Manchester United and City fans, Torquay United fans, but not very many actualfootball fans, when judged as a percentage of the multitudes who pay to watch the round ball game, either live or on television.

Their interest in wider events extends only so far as how they may or may not impact upon their own team, unless there’s a World Cup on, to first sing and then get depressed about in the pub. Soccer’s history no longer seems to matter much (see the slow and steady demise of the FA Cup – other than for the lower level clubs still in it); European football is of interest only since English outfits began to participate in high-profile competitions; to supporters of professional sides, the week-to-week struggles of grass roots amateurs matter not one jot.

The floating voter, meanwhile, might look upon the footy as they do a James Bond car chase. Something to get briefly excited about, though there’s no need to watch the entire film and certainly not rent the whole back catalogue.

In rugby league, you sense a tide turning in much the same direction. Where once upon a time, someone like Harry Edgar might launch Open Rugby in an atmosphere where everyone it seemed had a view on the sport’s traditions, how best it might thrive, the rules of the game, the wisdom or otherwise of expansion, favourite kits, inspirational players, legendary games etc, increasingly all that matters are the two points and/or local bragging rights.

League felt like a cause as much as a sport. To some of us it still does, though our numbers do appear to be shrinking. Does any of that matter?

True, rugby league fans still like a good moan about the people running the game. If internet forums aren’t as full of complaints about the RFL these days as they once were, that’s only because internet forums are all but dead as a popular medium of discussion, intelligent or otherwise. If you’ve something to vent about online, you might just as well pop it in a round robin email.

And even though Twitter, (I assume) Facebook and whatever the next big social media thing is have taken the forum’s place by the water cooler, much of that chat is less to do with the code as a whole than how hard done by his or her favourites are at the disciplinary or how useless (on the same basis) the ref was.

I could of course be imagining this change (and if you’ve read this far down then chances are that you at least are someone who likes to think about the game in a wider context) but I don’t think so.

Those supporters who hold rugby league itself dear, however cherished their own club, haven’t vanished entirely and good thing too. There are still lots of people for whom Forty-20 is a must-read every month, just as Open Rugby was before it, and praise the Lord of newsprint for that! But there also seems to be a growing number who will only pick up a league publication if it has their favourite player on the cover, if at all.

(And as an aside, congratulations to the aforementioned Mr Edgar whose nostalgia-based monthly, Rugby League Journal, has after thirteen years, appropriately enough, just published its fiftieth edition – but where, apart from the next issue ofForty-20, did you last hear anyone talking about that?)

In writing this piece, I happened across an intriguing nugget of info on the Guardian website related to Sky Sports’ game-wide magazine show Boots N’ All (well, Super League wide), namely its viewing figures. According to BARB – the organisation that compiles such statistics – it is watched by only 22,000 people.

True, there have been complaints about having the show in a café, complete with chugging coffee machines, folk rattling in their purse for a fiver and doubtless someone wandering in to ask where the toilet is before long, but that alone can’t account for such a low turn-out, can it?

Why, that’s fewer than will rock up at Wigan v Saints on Good Friday, and not far away from the KC Stadium on Thursday and Headingley Carnegie on Monday too I’ll wager. Boots N’ All may still be among the top ten shows on Sky Sports 4, but then so is Venezuelan Pot-Bellied Pig Tickling. Ye gods.

For a happier outlook, the actual matches are doing much better – good news in Sky’s 25th year of live rugby league broadcasting. The round two Wigan-Huddersfield clash drew around 190,000 viewers, second only to Sunday afternoon Premier League football and its audience of 1-2million.

In rugby league’s 120th anniversary year – not that you’ll have read much about that yet either – we’d be well served to try and widen the league interest of as large a proportion of those 190,000 as possible, the better to ensure that our future is built on solid foundations rather than the whims of sporting fashion.

Or would we? Perhaps short attention spans and the herd mentality are all we have now. Perhaps it was ever thus. I’d very much like to know what you think. Please do post any thoughts below.

 

I’ve just finished KP, the autobiography of controversial cricketer Kevin Pietersen that can be summed up thus: Other than for all of that stuff that was my fault, someone else – probably the coach – was to blame.

Such books are seldom works of high literature and KP is no different. It’s more of an extended newspaper column really, ghost written and dragged out over 350 pages, but insightful and entertaining, not least with its revelations about England’s horrendous back-stabbing dressing room culture.

As you might expect, the game’s governing body, the ECB, also comes in for a fair amount of stick from a bloke who ‘writes’ as he bats – explosively. A lot of the bullshit corporate psychobabble he targets certainly strikes a chord.

But from rugby league’s perspective there is a particularly interesting reference to the RLIF’s new boss David Collier OBE, a former chief exec of the England Cricket Board who is now league’s first full-time international chief.

Championing the cash-rich razzmatazz behemoth that is the Indian Premier League (IPL) in which Pietersen has played such a superstar role, while simultaneously comparing it with the more staid and – as the ECB sees it – less vulgar county cricket beloved of the ECB, our hero writes:

‘In April 2013 David Collier…urged the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to schedule future Indian Premier League seasons so that they would dovetail more successfully with the England first-class season.

‘I had to laugh. It was like a knackered old wildebeest asking a young lion if he wouldn’t mind working a three-day week and staying at least five hundred yards away from the watering hole at any given time.’

Pietersen, of course, has at least two axes to grind with Collier. One, he was party to the decision that saw ‘KP’ sacked by England after the last Ashes debacle down under. And two, Collier earlier accused Pietersen of being duped by his South Africa mates during ‘textgate’, for which the new RLIF man later apologised. So we can take the tone of the above quote with a bucket of salt.

Yet substitute IPL for NRL and Collier’s present circumstances are remarkably similar, aren’t they? The fellow must be a glutton for punishment, but good luck to him anyway. Hope he’s ready for a few Aussie bouncers.

 

Tone’s Easter Tips: Victories in part one for Hull KR, Catalans, Warrington, Castleford, Wigan, Huddersfield. Victories in part two for Warrington, Huddersfield, Leeds, Salford, Saints, Catalans. Cross-code jockey Rob Burrow leaves Rhinos to take up challenge of riding donkeys in Bridlington.

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