The World Cup can save us from an annus mediocre – if we let it

Robert Burgin Columnist

By , Robert Burgin is a Roar Expert

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    Last week, in the space of five days, I attended one NRL game at a stadium, watched four other NRL games on TV, drove three hours to watch a mate play a country semi-final, coached two training sessions and wrote three funding applications for my team.

    Because my wife hasn’t divorced me so far, I even had the temerity to wake up in the middle of Saturday night and go and watch the Challenge Cup final live from England with a mate, getting home around 3am.

    I then tried to wake up in time to watch the full USARL final live from Atlanta, but only caught the end.

    Obsessed much?

    I use all this to preface what I’m about to say because I don’t want to look like some curmudgeonly critic who enjoys denigrating rugby league without having any real stake in it.

    As much as anyone, I hate reading those columns by blokes who rarely watch a game from outside the press box, have never tried coaching or playing, but love to run the game into the ground.

    Regardless of my fanaticism however, if you break things down dispassionately, it’s hard to rate season 2017 as a shining light in the history of the NRL.

    Going into the final round, average crowds were at their lowest level since 2004; this coming after last year’s finals series attendances were down 13 per cent on the previous year.

    Melbourne has been runaway minor premier, which is fantastic if you’re a Storm supporter, but a bit boring for everyone else, even if they’re an admirable outfit.

    More disturbingly it felt like the competition split into ‘finalists’ and ‘also-rans’ at a very early stage this season, save aside the Dragons who have helped maintain some interest to the end.

    Of those in the lower half, it’s been the manner in which they’ve lost this season that causes concern. There are some extremely good rosters that have played dispirited and seemingly disinterested.

    Kieran Foran New Zealand Warriors NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/David Rowland)

    I can remember plenty of seasons where teams copped a pasting, but very few where I got the lingering impression they didn’t want to be there.

    If you look to the superstars, Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston and Shaun Johnson have all been missing injured for big chunks of the season, while Sam Burgess has played banged up and been a shadow of seasons past.

    The supposed jewel in the crown, State of Origin, struggled to sell tickets in Brisbane at the usual frenetic pace as people felt the administration were milking them like farmer’s cows.

    In the end the crowd of 50,390 for Game 1 this year will cover over the lowered demand that everyone in the city could sense.

    It was the lowest Suncorp Stadium crowd with the series undecided (i.e. excluding Game 3, 2014) since 2001 when Queensland was coming off the back of a 56-16 pasting by the Cockroaches.

    Of course you can’t put all of this down to one or even a handful of people. And certainly nobody can blame Melbourne for being winners or Inglis, Thurston and Johnson for being injured.

    But you can say all these factors have aligned to have left everyone a little, well, flat.

    Maybe it’s too strong to describe it as an annus horribilis for the NRL. Perhaps annus mediocre would be more apt.

    To me, the factors that have added excitement and unpredictability to rugby league this year have been Papua New Guinea taking the Queensland State League minor premiership, the continued growth and spectacle of women’s rugby league, the Pacific Test, and speculation over looming World Cup squads.

    Everything else has been much of a muchness.

    So where am I getting to with all this, aside from having a potshot from my lounge chair?
    Essentially I am saying this isn’t the end of the world, but neither is it a great time to be puffing your chest out, strutting around like cockatoos and making big demands.

    And to further entrench something I have always believed – timing is the most valuable attribute you can have in rugby league.

    You don’t threaten to boycott a World Cup, as NRL players have been for several months, when you have a top four team that doesn’t have a major sponsor on their jersey.

    You don’t say too much money is getting directed towards the grassroots when it’s those peripheral competitions which are keeping some spice in the relationship.

    I’ve believed as long as I can remember that rugby league players should be paid more than what they are, but the way the message is taking shape at the moment is terrible.

    It’s terribly phrased and terribly timed.

    When your excitement machines for the season are two flying Fijians who have been lighting up scoreboards, you don’t seriously consider disrupting a competition which highlights your diversity.

    As others have already pointed out, James Maloney describing everyone aside from players as “accessories” to the game will win you no fans, nor will torpedoing a competition that is unrelated to your employer, but has capacity to grow the global audience.

    James Maloney NSW Blues State of Origin NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    At a time where we can look at our national cricket team and our national rugby union team for an example of what it looks like as people progressively lose interest and affinity, do we really want to risk that?

    It could be the tipping point some fans don’t come back from.

    The World Cup has the potential to save the NRL from its annus mediocre, and should be welcomed by players as a distraction and a chance to reconnect with supporters, rather than a plaything to be taken away on a whim.

    (Yes, I know ‘annus mediocre’ is not true Latin form. It sounds better than the alternative. I’m here to entertain more than be correct, just as NRL players should be.)

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.