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Rugby league dispatches from a heretic in exile

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Expert
19th August, 2019
21

A few weeks ago, the Warriors copped a bake in the penalty count and some Kiwi commentators openly questioned whether Australians wanted them in the NRL.

Kiwi sports journalism was years ahead of Australian media in this regard – they’ve mixed opinion with reporting as long as I can remember and delighted in the “shock jock” approach to radio talkback and newspaper columns.

Of course, there is no significant proportion of fans, pundits or officials in Australia who don’t want the Warriors in the competition. It’s a city of 1.7 million in country of 4.8 million and they more than pay their way in media rights.

But sports fans in the “new world” see things practically like that; we are used to our teams relocating, folding, merging. We understand that away fans are a bonus not an essential pillar of a team’s business, since many sides travel by plane to play away games and often during the week, when even those fans who can afford to travel are at work.

We accept that play-offs are there for added excitement, TV rights and cash, as is golden point and all those other bells and whistles that have been added to professional sport over the years.

If we’re in North America we do not care one iota where a player is from and if we’re in Australasia we like a local guy on our teams but we’re not not overly fussed how many their are.

Issac Luke passes.

Issac Luke of the Warriors. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Ladies and gentlemen, let me say this: I live in England and it is nothing like that here.

Even in Challenge Cup final week, there is no soft way to put this: rugby league is a very, very small part of the sporting landscape here but the way the British attitudes to sport rub up against rugby league’s connections with its own larger world is absolutely fascinating and intriguing.

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Warrington are playing St Helens on Saturday in the big final; the holders are Catalans and at one point the Rugby Football League wanted them to guarantee ticket sales should they make the big one this weekend, because they lost so much money last year having an “out of country” side in the decider.

Toronto Wolfpack – who sit right on the tectonic plate of these two sporting cultures and ideologies colliding – were the subject of a similar request and told the RFL where to go.

They didn’t compete in the Challenge Cup this year.

The Rugby Football League can treat these overseas clubs differently by virtue of an arcane system of “membership”. It’s like a Grand Poo Bah set-up for English teams and no matter how much you contribute to the sport in England right now, if you’re not a member, you’re not a member.

As an example, Hemel Hempstead didn’t play a single match this year but are voting members of the RFL. Toronto Wolfpack drew the biggest crowds in the Championship, won the Championship by a stretch, paid to put the Championship on TV each week – and don’t get a vote because they are not members.

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Membership is about history, not the world today – but it’s not just the official structure of the game that live in the past.

Check out some of the fans.

You’d already be aware that many supporters don’t want Toronto in Super League next year, no matter how good they are.

British professional sport is in an almost unique position – at least in the case of soccer – where you can drive to every away game and any village, town or city can theoretically make the top division if it amasses enough money.

Because it’s a small country, promotion and relegation works – this year I have to travel to Bolton, next year to Everton. No big deal.

So the supporters here think every sport should be the same.

They think Toronto should just start their own league in America.

London Broncos defeat Toronto Raptors to make it back into the Super League.

Could Toronto bring more cash to the Super League? (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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The idea that starting a professional sports franchise is about bringing a sport to a population centre, holding an event every second week which you then sell via tickets, merchandise, sponsorship and media rights so you eventually make money, might as well be in Latin for English sports fans.

Now, where can one buy a professional rugby league franchise in North America? Nowhere! Eric Perez looked to England because it was the nearest “shop” where he could buy what he wanted.

But no, in England clubs are representative of their communities, not businesses.

Sport is the noble, pure embodiment of civic pride and time honoured passion and history! The clubs have always been there and always will be and every time someone like Bradford or Widnes goes broke, they just have a public appeal, pocket the dough and then the club goes broke again.

As with the Brexiters, the solution to everything is to grab a time machine and go back to some indeterminate time when Britain Was Great.

Rod Studd, a reasonably high profile TV pundit here, wants to get rid of the video ref completely and toss out play-offs for good measure.

My last few tweets before my account was suspended for automation (yes, I do have automated tweets and no, I don’t think I will contest the suspension very vigorously as Twitter has already eaten up enough of my life and facilitated me giving away about 250 columns like this for free) pointed out that professional sport main objective is not to find the best team each year – it seeks to provide content that can be monetised.

Professional sport is not for players. That’s why they don’t have to go do a real job. It’s for fans, who are customers.

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I also contended that the video referee is about box ticking, arse covering and blame shifting – perfectly reasonable as they are all essential parts of modern life – and that all those noble aspects of sport like shared experience, tribalism and morality lessons were commodities it sells to you.

If you’ll buy for another four weeks, why wouldn’t they put on finals and take your money?


All of these observations, which I expect many Australian readers would regard as uncontroversial, were greeted as heretical here. “The most soulless person on Twitter,” someone called me.

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He was half right. I’m currently not on Twitter.