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January is not usually a time for rugby league teams to join, rejoin or quit competitions – or for State of Origin sides to go into camp.
But surely an NRL summer league can’t be far away when the clamour for the time of players and fans at this time of year is so great.
The only piece of the puzzle missing is the Adelaide Rams and North Sydney Bears playing nines in an air conditioned arena of a Wednesday night, televised live on Fox League.
In England, the Challenge Cup yesterday finally found a sponsor, replacing one bookmaker with another. Catalans, who refused to pay a foreign team tax of £500,000 to compete, will defend their title after a deal was done with the RFL – about which the RFL are telling us almost nothing.
Toronto, who also refused to pay the bond levelled in case the crowd at the Wembley final is affected by the fact they are from very, very far out of town, are still out. Dunno why.
So while we can accuse the RFL of gross unfairness to Toronto, as long as the details of the deal with Catalans remains secret we can’t actually catalogue just how egregious this self-evident prejudice has been.
Toronto haven’t taken a slice of TV money, paid to host the million pound game, paid for incoming teams the last two years and now find themselves singled out for exclusion from the Challenge Cup because they refused to bend over once more.
(Toulouse chose not to compete last year and, for all we know so far from public statements, also volunteered to stand down in 2019).
The RFL is “not obliged” to invite Catalans, Toulouse or Toronto because they are not members of the RFL. Imagine Brisbane being excluded for all decision making from 1988 to 1995 because they were not situated in NSW!
But the biggest issue is that RFL are saying no team that enters before Toronto would have, in round four, have any chance of making the final – otherwise they’d have been asked for a bond as well, right?
Red Star Belgrade and Dublin Longhorns play this weekend, bond free, so the governing body of the competition is making it clear it believes they are wasting their time.
One can only hope Huddersfield and Salford are this year’s finalists and the crowd is even smaller than it was in 2018 – which at 50,000 wasn’t really ‘small’ at all.
Meanwhile, in areas where games being snowed off is not a problem, Brad Fittler has taken the Blues into camp in Armidale; Origin continues to swallow Australian Rugby League whole.
Club coaches used to take solace in the fact that at least in the pre-season, there was no impingement of representative football. The pre-season was for clubs – including international club competition – the mid-season was for Origin and non-Australian Tests and the post-season was for internationals.
We thought we finally had it figured out.
But no, Origin’s financial muscle has now muscled in on January. A representative team that should be just a shell, brought into play for a couple of months each winter, continues its commercial and cultural growth at the expense of other parts of the sport.
Perhaps State players shouldn’t play club football at all. If the NSW and Queensland leagues are such big businesses, let them take the players on full-time, find some more opposition to play against and leave the club and international scenes alone.
The tug of war over players might eventually end with the rope breaking.