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

Robert Burgin Columnist

By Robert Burgin, 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.

    The Socceroos' hopes of qualifying from the group stage at the World Cup are hanging by a thread after a 1-1 draw against Denmark. See how the match unfolded with our Australia vs Denmark match report, highlights and result.

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    The Crowd Says (231)

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 10:27am
      Flea said | September 2nd 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      Spot on.
      Why players are talking of a boycott of the International game when they are being payed domestically is beyond me.

      Threaten to boycott the finals.

      • September 2nd 2017 @ 5:33pm
        Matth said | September 2nd 2017 @ 5:33pm | ! Report

        They wouldn’t dare to threaten the NRL as it might affect their next contract

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 10:55am
      Norad said | September 2nd 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

      1. Ridiculous scheduling times in 2017 have killed crowds.

      2. Ticket prices for Origin were over priced for working mans game.

      3. AFL All Australian team will get more coverage than the WC. Not fans fault but NRL media hate international league. Anyone see the Challenge Cup final in London with 60K fans get mentioned on Ch 9 News the home of rugby league? They covered AFL fake news of few thousand ex pats turning up to a AFL game in China.

      4. The media & FFA have decided ‘The Roos’ are the Socceroos not the Kangaroos. Not that anyone at NRL HQ will even mount a fight to keep it.

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 11:28am
      Albo said | September 2nd 2017 @ 11:28am | ! Report

      The game has become one dimensional and boring in its “‘sameness” both on and off the field. It has lost its grassroots traditions and meaning to entertain both players and fans and to maintain local tribalism of support. On the field the game has restricted participation to big powerful titans rather than a mix of player types and hence styles of play. Off the field the game is in the hands of the player agents and media sycophants with the sole objective of milking the game for all it is worth. There is no such thing as club or player loyalty so the fans are left with “take it or leave it ” options to remain interested in their game. Many are leaving it ! Whilst I am a big fan of the World Cup and the desire to grow the game internationally and keep the regional incubation of the NRL’s next generations of its players, I think more importantly we need to address the problems in the NRL, the game’s only current stronghold, increasingly under threat in this small footy marketplace. Whilst the upcoming World Cup will be fun for all participants and fans and perhaps end the year on a positive note, we need to address the threats to the long term survival of the NRL competition.
      Many things need to be done , but for me there are three (3) key issues that need to be implemented for the longevity of the game :
      1. Scrap the Interchange rule. This should encourage more junior participation and allow a variety of body types and style of player to strive for careers in the game and alter the current one dimensional style of the game.
      2. Ban or severely restrict the influence of player agents in the game. Perhaps the focus on cash will not be the sole influence on players’ limited attention spans. Maybe current foreign concepts like Club & fan loyalty and player enjoyment might return to the game.
      3. Enforce the playing rules of the game. Currently the integrity of the game is at an all time low, and frustrated fans are sick of the “lucky dip ” outcomes via officials limited decisions regarding rule infringements in every match played. The game is currently being manipulated for short term commercial interests by ignoring the rules in favour of a “free flowing” game, except for the odd whim of the officials to demonstrate they still have some place in the game.

      • Roar Rookie

        September 2nd 2017 @ 6:26pm
        William Dalton Davis said | September 2nd 2017 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

        1. Scrapping interchange will not promote different body types. It’ll promote the 6’2 95-105 kg athlete who can play 80 minutes.

        2. RLPA will never allow for the guys who earn the players bigger contracts to be banned.

        3. Can’t tell if your gripe is with the 50/50 calls or the non calls on minor issues. The play the ball is a mess and needs to be looked at with more scrutiny, but just this week we had Blair I believe pinged for not getting to his feet to play the ball even though on replay he most certainly did. The refs are only human and are going to err on the side of caution. Especially when it’s something with so much grey area (like making an attempt to play the ball with your foot)

        • Roar Guru

          September 3rd 2017 @ 8:42pm
          Cadfael said | September 3rd 2017 @ 8:42pm | ! Report

          I don’t call forward passes leading to tries a minor issue. The rules are there. It is up to the referees to officiate as per the rules not pick and choose which rules we will use and when we will do so.

          • Roar Rookie

            September 4th 2017 @ 7:29pm
            William Dalton Davis said | September 4th 2017 @ 7:29pm | ! Report

            Forward passes are not ignored. They’re missed. They’re actually very hard to pick up at a live game. Especially from dummy half. Also I never suggested referees do pick and choose. I merely suggested that if they aren’t sure they’ll let it go, yet they still get the call wrong sometimes.

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 11:33am
      Your kidding said | September 2nd 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      What World Cup? Sydney , leagues biggest city doesn’t seem to be interested. I think there is only 2 games in Sydney.
      Plus, I would of thought that with the game losing ground in Sydney, the NRL would have a season opening double header next year at ANZ. Not Perth where they don’t even have an NRL team.

      • September 2nd 2017 @ 12:22pm
        Big Daddy said | September 2nd 2017 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

        The problem island is your kidding is we have amateurs trying to run a professional game and have no understanding of the the mind of the rugby league fan.
        For example we have an test match between Australia and new Zealand which is only ever played in Australia.
        As you have said we have matches in Perth to open season.
        We have a world cup where only 2 matches are played in Sydney.
        And we have poor planning for matches, poor crowds and to top it off we are getting rid of under 20’s next year with no obvious replacement.
        Gus Gould said last night he fears for the future of rugby league.
        I don’t think he is too far off the mark.
        The NRL have no obvious plan for the future and are making spot decisions on which ever fire comes up first.

        • September 2nd 2017 @ 1:20pm
          Your kidding said | September 2nd 2017 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

          The NRL desperately want to play at the new Perth stadium. I get that. But it looks like cricket, a couple of rock concerts and an Aussie Rules event will be held there before the NRL. So I’m not sure why they are opening the season there. Perth seems to be a bit anti rugby codes after the Force fiasco and losing the Reds years ago.
          If the NRL were launching a new Perth team I’d say go for it. But at this stage it looks like Sydney needs more help 1st.

          • September 2nd 2017 @ 1:28pm
            Fred said | September 2nd 2017 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

            All Sydney needs is for the Tigers to have a good season! A massive fan base lulled to sleep by years of poor form.

            • September 2nd 2017 @ 6:30pm
              Justin Kearney said | September 2nd 2017 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

              Tiges have been an embarrassment for a few years. I hope benjis return helps them as they are potentially a massive club.

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 11:38am
      theHunter said | September 2nd 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

      If they want to boycott the World Cup, than just let the Australians (And NZlders) have their day in the sun. Pick players from the other minor comps around and have them lose the Cup and their World Rankings.

      I can guarantee that the World Cup will be the most exciting and unpredictable one to date. The Pacific Nations will be at War from the Word “go” and the World Cup will have a new Champion for a change.

      I’d rather have this than trying to resolve a boycott that the NRL players will only benefit from.

      • September 2nd 2017 @ 5:35pm
        Matth said | September 2nd 2017 @ 5:35pm | ! Report

        Will the Pacific Islander and other nationalities that play in the NRL also boycott?

        • September 4th 2017 @ 5:48pm
          Crosscoder said | September 4th 2017 @ 5:48pm | ! Report

          Then local players from the local comps would fill the void.Masters made that point.

    • September 2nd 2017 @ 12:22pm
      Mike from tari said | September 2nd 2017 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

      In future years now the players will have a 29% share in the game, I can see the the RLPA demanding the following as shareholders.
      1: A Rep to pick the Representative teams;
      2: Support of strike action on players dropped or not picked in their club teams
      3: telling the clubs how much they can pay their players.
      4 Interfering in player negotiations with clubs;
      I am convinced that crowds are down because of the dragging on of player negotiations, the majority of fans are not wealthy people & to see a player in & out of first grade being paid a minimum of $330,000 a year boggles the mind.
      I find it is a furphy that the Association is called the Rugby League Players Association when it only represents NRL players, they should be representing all players.

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