The Roar
The Roar

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A rugby league postcard from the edge

They do things differently out on rugby league's edges. Just look at Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Expert
7th May, 2018
59
1584 Reads

In rugby league, space really is the final frontier.

Space between Australia and wherever the frontier is, space between what the game owes the bank and what it has, space between perception and reality, between the best possible outcome and the worst.

In the wake of international Star Wars Day (May the fourth be with you, geddit?) I bring you this dispatch from the furthest reaches of the known rugby league universe, namely Toronto, West Wales, Prague and joints like that.

A postcard from the edge, if you like.

No, this isn’t going to be a recital of how many Irish referees were trained up this week or whether it’s a good thing that England Knights are touring New Guinea instead of competing in a European Championship.

We’re here to talk to you about how people think out here, and how it might have an impact on the way the game as a whole thinks in future.

Because in Australasia, things seem quite settled. We whinge about referees and fine coaches and have blokes misbehave in nightclubs and fear for the future of bush footy… then play Origin and do it all over again, ad infinitum.

Meanwhile, in England they’re having meetings where a handful of clubs supposedly want to take control of the entire sport in its birthplace.

Playing numbers shrink and TV rights prepare to do likewise as people of means from New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Dublin and Belgrade line-up for tickets on what seems a Titanic.

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One of the attractions of living in North America or Europe is that you can convince yourself you are a participant in history rather than a spectator watching through a telescope.

Of course, being a participant in history can get you killed. A vast swathe of humanity would rather be on the safe side of the telescopic lens.

Whether rugby league history really is being made in northern hemisphere capitals depends on how some of the decisions fall. These discussions could just as easily make the game itself history outside its antipodean citadels.

Denver is a well-worn narrative here. Will the World Cup in North America seven years from now finally widen our gene pool enough to breed out our self-destruct gene and foist us upon an unsuspecting and welcoming world?

Or will it not even be held because playing games at that attitude is pure folly and 14 hours is a long time for a rugby league player to spend on a plane?

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The Wolfpack returned to Canada last weekend, playing in regional Markham, Ontario. On sale during the game against Swinton was a heritage jersey.

Yes, an 18-month-old club produced a heritage jersey.

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It marked not the Wolfpack’s first game way back in 2016, in those primitive times when you couldn’t automatically put bunny ears on your head on Facebook video messenger, but the establishment rugby in Ontario.

Not David Silcock’s Tri-County Rugby League of the 1980s but rugby – rugby union.

While a similar design for the Wolfpack by an Englishman commemorates the visit to Canada of the 1928 rugby league Lions, the Wolfpack chose to celebrate the birth of what is considered in most other places the “rival” code, an organisation even Ontario Rugby League until recently considered a malevolent force.

But it’s all rugby to the Wolfpack. Like I said, things are different out here.

Even in England, there’s a feeling that in order to take a new direction, the sport needs to almost implode before being rebuilt by opportunistic outsiders. The more dire things get, the easier it will be for an Eddie Hearn or a David Argyle to fix them.

Take this example: West Wales Raiders were beaten 144-0 by York last week and 124-0 to Bradford this week.

To our traditional rugby league way of thinking, this just makes West Wales Raiders shit. But to someone I communicated with yesterday, it’s a golden opportunity.

Teams from mainland Europe want to eventually join Super League but find it problematic to find a way in. What if teams like West Wales Raiders and Hemel Stags and a Coventry Bears formed a new pan-European competition, where they would face Red Star Belgrade and Dorcol Spiders and North Brussels Gorillas?

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A competition of “shit” teams could have more commercial potential than one made up of sides who only a year before were putting a century past them!

Too many people think they know too much about rugby league in Australia for this sort of thinking to take hold. Where no-one knows anything, everything seems possible.

Just because no-one spoke up in favour of the proposals of Wigan chairman Ian Lenegan at a meeting last week, in which he suggested streamlining the top flight, doesn’t mean no-one agreed with him. Just because Gary Hetherington and Andrew Chalmers say nothing will change next year, doesn’t mean nothing will change next year.

Out here on the edge, rugby league’s next course is being plotted. If the ship is piloted into an iceberg and sinks without a trace, no doubt a new one will be built in its place and the same old mistakes will be made again.

For 123 years, it has been thus.