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What happened to rugby league in 2018?

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Expert
27th August, 2018
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2340 Reads

I’ve got a confession to make – I’m not excited about the NRL finals.

There, I said it. I’m not proud of this fact, and I realise such sacrilegious sentiments are enough to get you excommunicated from the rugby league community. But if I’m honest, the 2018 season just hasn’t done it for me. And I’m struggling to understand why.

In years gone by, I used to love Friday night football. I looked forward to it all week.

There was no better way to start the weekend than with a few beers and a blockbuster bout between two competition heavyweights. It became as much a part of my weekly routine as grocery shopping and forgetting to put the bins out.

But this year, my interest has begun to wane. I find myself channel surfing during games or forgetting the footy is on altogether. For whatever reason, the NRL just isn’t as captivating this year as it has been in the past.

And I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve noticed less banter on the group chat, less Monday morning footy debriefs in the office, and just a lack of general excitement around town.

People just don’t seem as engaged with rugby league this year as they have in previous seasons.

So what wrong with the footy in 2018?

Lack of dominant teams
This has been one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory.

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Teams widely viewed as top four certainties like Parramatta and North Queensland battled to avoid the wooden spoon, while wooden spoon favourites like New Zealand are fighting for a top four finish.

And while this unprecedented parity is great for salary cap truthers, I find it unnerving. I grew up in an era of haves and have nots. It was a simpler time.

Clubs like the Broncos, Bulldogs and Roosters were always in contention, just as sides like South Sydney and Western Suburbs were forever destined to finish at the bottom of the ladder.

Some might find this boring, but I enjoyed this sense of certainty.

I enjoyed tuning into a Sunday afternoon game between an Andrew Johns-led Newcastle Knights up against a Brad Fittler led Sydney Roosters, and you just knew the game would be a complete ball-tearer.

Don’t get me wrong, the individual matches have been entertaining this season.

The late game theatrics from the Penrith Panthers and Canberra Raiders have made for compulsive viewing. But you just never know which games are going to be absolute gems, and which will be complete and utter bludgers.

And now as we head into the finals, a time when sides should be hitting their peak and playing their best football, most of the top teams are out of form. T

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he Roosters have lost two straight, the Rabbitohs have lost three straight, and the Dragons have lost four of their last five. This doesn’t fill me with the usual levels of excitement and anticipation heading into September.

Ben Hunt runs

Ben Hunt of the Dragons (AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Lack of superstar players
One of the great strengths of rugby league is the game’s ability to constantly regenerate superstar players.

When I started following the code, it was ruled by the likes of Laurie Daley, Wally Lewis, Greg Alexander and Bradley Clyde. True rugby league royalty, and seemingly irreplaceable.

But as these legends entered the twilight of their respective careers, along came Andrew Johns, Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer, and the game didn’t miss a beat. Nor was there a lull when the baton was passed to Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Jonathan Thurston and Benji Marshall.

Johnathan Thurston

The Cowboys are saying goodbye to JT (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

But with Slater and Thurston poised to retire, Smith, Marshall and Cooper Cronk playing on borrowed time, and Greg Inglis’ body beginning to betray him, where is the next wave of superstars? Who will carry the game forward once this current crop moves on?

The reality is that most of the players who looked destined to reach the pointy end of the rugby league pyramid just haven’t panned out. I’m talking about the likes of Mitchell Pearce, Corey Norman, Anthony Milford, Shaun Johnson, Ben Hunt and James Maloney.

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Each a very good player in his own right, but at this stage in their respective careers, none can be considered great.

Instead it seems that greatness may have skipped a generation, and footy fans will be left to wait until Kalyn Ponga and Nathan Cleary shake off the shackles of puberty and develop into fully fledged superstars.

Does this really impact on the quality of the on-field product? I think it does. The presence of a superstar player on any team immediately makes the game more watchable. I’ve always hated both the Roosters and the Broncos, but enjoyed watching them play because I knew that at any moment, Fittler or Lockyer could produce something magical.

I don’t get that same feeling this year.

Kalyn Ponga

Kalyn Ponga of the Maroons (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The officiating crackdown
In theory, Todd Greenberg’s idea was a sound one – he was going to clean up the ruck and enforce a stricter 10 metres, tightening up an area of the game which had slowly deteriorated over the last decade or so.

Sounds pretty straight-forward right? Surely there’s nothing wrong with asking the officials to referee the game according to the rule book?

Unfortunately for Greenberg, the rugby league rulebook is like a Jenga tower – pull the wrong piece and the whole thing comes crumbling down. And crumble it did.

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With the officials mandated to blow the pea out of the whistle, the game stopped and started so often that you could have been forgiven for thinking that Optus has been granted the broadcast rights.

The greatest game of all became painful to watch. With so many stoppages, fatigue was no longer a factor and the natural ebb and flow of the contest vanished.

At times this season has reminded me of a high school beep test, with players running 10 metres, waiting for the whistle to blow, then turning around to run in the opposite direction.

As expected, the crackdown became a back down. Under the monumental weight of public criticism, Greenberg threw his officials under the bus by asking them not to go “looking for penalties”. But the damage had been done.

Like the final six episodes of Lost, that’s half a season we’ll never get back.

Media coverage
If the games were painful to watch, they were nothing compared to the exhausting media coverage on the sorry state of the referees. Tabloids, talk back and television would dedicate endless hours to pulverising rugby league’s perennial punching bags.

It felt like everyone had an opinion. Even seasoned fence sitters like Peter Sterling couldn’t help but join the Gus Gould chorus line of complaining about the outrageous penalty counts and demanding action from NRL HQ.

Not only was this negative narrative a constant source of distraction for fans and players alike, but it also provided NRL coaches with a readymade excuse for every poor performance.

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Post-match press conferences were suddenly filled with more cherry picking than the Sydney Christmas Markets, as coaches would blame their team’s loss on a single refereeing decision within an 80 minute contest.

The pressure and social media scrutiny on the referees grew so intense that Matt Cecchin, a 300-game veteran and one of the game’s best whistle blowers, is planning to walk away from rugby league at season’s end. And after reading some of the disturbing comments directed at him and his family this year, it’s hard to blame him. Sometimes people forget that it’s just a game.

Referee Matt Cecchin during the 2017 NRL Grand Final match between the Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys.

Referee Matt Cecchin (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I remember when rugby league reporting used to focus on the football. Match highlights, game analysis, that kind of thing. But this season, it’s been all about the drama.

Coaching carousels have replaced player performance, and the only analysis involves calculating the number of dud referee decisions handed out in a given game.

And I blame NRL 360. That might sound a little extreme, but I firmly believe that NRL 360 is largely responsible for the degeneration of the rugby league media.

Once upon a time it was a weekly program based on expert opinion from players, coaches and a selection of journalists from a range of publications.

Now, the show is nothing more than a Daily Telegraph mouthpiece, giving crisis merchants like Paul Crawley and Phil Rothfield three nights a week to straddle their soapbox, spew forth their poisonous opinions and populate their Twitter feeds.

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I’ve become so disgusted by the direction the show has taken that I even briefly considered switching over to Channel 9. Madness.

Some will say that nothing’s changed; that rugby league has always been fuelled by scandal and controversy. And to some extend I agree. But this season, the negativity and off-field focus is completely out of control.

As a fan I feel short-changed by the lack of depth and variety of rugby league content on offer, particularly compared to other major codes overseas. And at the same time, I feel embarrassed on behalf of the players.

They are putting their bodies on the line each and every week, yet all the media want to talk about is who’ll be coaching Penrith in 2019.

All I can say is thank God for Warren Smith!

The administration of rugby league
Nothing drives fans away from the game faster and more effectively than rugby league administrators. They seem to have a special set of skills in this department.

Whether they’re located in at NRL HQ, floating around club land or just sitting on an International Board somewhere, they’ve done their best to dismantle the game in 2018.

The NRL got things started early with their flaccid handling of the Matt Lodge incident.

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Whether it was the correct decision or not to allow Lodge to take the field became almost secondary to the NRL’s complete lack of transparency around the issue.

As fans, all we ask for are the facts and a clearly communicated decision. We got neither, and the game lost supporters as a result.

Greenberg then doubled down by enforcing his now infamous officiating crackdown. Again, had he communicated this clearly to begin the season and then stuck to his guns all year, he’d likely be praised for his leadership.

Instead, he succumbed to the wishes of coaches and influential figures in the media, backed away from his previous stance, and lost respect along the way.

Manly then stepped in to give Greenberg a breather, orchestrating a salary cap scandal so amateurish and so 2010 that even Brian Waldron was having a laugh. But undisclosed third-party agreements were just the opening act for the Sea Eagles, who to this day remain mired in managerial malarkey after a string of bonehead blunders that don’t bear repeating.

Enter Phil Gould. Not one to be left out of such shenanigans, Gus then took centre stage by spending a month on Twitter hosing down rumours of a coaching rift before unceremoniously sacking his coach.

Fearing this may not be enough to keep him in the headlines, Gould then went about approaching Ivan Cleary, a coach currently under contract and one whom Gus previously fired, and asking him come back to Penrith. Truly one of the game’s sharpest minds.

Phil Gould talks with Peter Wallace on the field.

Phil Gould has denied he’s been pulling the strings at Penrith. (Photo: Tony Feder/Getty Images)

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At the end of the day, I’m not surprised that 2018 has been a bid of a dud. The previous three seasons have been of such high quality, delivering maiden premierships for Cronulla and North Queensland along with the Storm producing the single greatest season I’ve ever witnessed, that it was always going to be difficult to maintain such a standard, particularly off the back of a World Cup.

But I also believe that we as a code have done little to help our own cause. The sheer volume of off-field negativity and the public’s insatiable appetite to consume it has been exhausting. I’ve often found myself flicking over to watch the coverage of the parliamentary coup just to get a break from the drama.

So with all this doom and gloom in mind, will I be tuning in to watch the finals? Of course I bloody will. Its rugby league after all. And if this season continues on its current trajectory, I’m predicting a eighth premiership for the Super Coach.

Just imagine the drama that would cause.