The 2019 NRL season is steaming towards its exciting crescendo like the famous flying Scotsman as it heads from London to Edinburgh.
We’re now in the thick of the part of the season where almost every game matters. With almost 12 teams still in play, more games matter more than ever.
Matches like last Thursday’s between the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs drew comparisons with the battles between the two clubs in the 1980s. When Josh Jackson stormed up to Nathan Brown while he was being cautioned for a late shoulder charge on Bulldogs fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak the 18,000-strong crowd seemed ready to jump the fence.
Then there was the game between the Brisbane Broncos and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The build-up was a battle of wits between the two powerhouse clubs’ coaches, with old master Wayne Bennett heading back to Suncorp to watch his depleted Rabbitohs do enough to beat a fired-up Brisbane in one of the most spiteful games in years. It all makes for great theatre.
Yet the weight of negativity and the seeming inevitability of some unforeseen crisis hangs around the game like a surly drunk after last call on a Saturday night.
Even in the throes of a competition like this, after the game has picked itself up from the off-season from hell and produced some top-class events and amazing on-field stories, we struggle to let go of the negativity that seems to be ingrained in the DNA of rugby league.
It certainly doesn’t help that the commentators and media seem to be driven by an innate desire to dig up a bad news story.
Watching Sunday afternoon’s coverage of an epic top-four clash between the Canberra Raiders and Manly Sea Eagles at a packed out Canberra Stadium, the Channel Nine team seemed almost desperate to harp on about the stop-start nature of the game. One commentator at one point even called into question the head injury assessment rule (HIA), accusing it of causing unnecessary delays.
While I concede that the HIA is an imperfect system and some coaches have tried to exploit it, it is something that has been put in place to safeguard both the players and the game. It puts player safety paramount and is the exact opposite of unnecessary.
Members of the Channel Nine commentary team seem so jaded by the present state of the game that at times it was detracting from the on-field action.
If this was the EPL or NFL their respective leaders would be on the phone to the broadcasters to not so gently remind them that they are in partnership to grow the game’s audience and that harping on about a decision that the officials made ten minutes ago doesn’t really help anyone.
Criticism of mistakes by officials is sometimes vital and necessary. But like mistakes by players, perhaps during the general call of the game it is better for broadcasters to move on and call the immediate action instead of a mistake made by a flawed human being. Leave the nitpicking for the extended post-game analysis.
Audiences pick up on these kinds of sentiments, and whispers of a game in crisis soon become a roar.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, while Yorkshire was hosting the third game in the Ashes, rugby league headed south to London with St Helens and Warrington going head to head in a Challenge Cup epic on Saturday. Warrington managed to win this game 18-4 even without star playmaker Blake Austin.
The crowd of over 63,000 is almost exclusively from the league-loving north, with many travelling hundreds of miles to descend on Wembley to celebrate the great game of rugby league.
When I went to my first Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in 2015 I was absolutely stunned by just how many fans attend who don’t necessarily support the two teams who are playing. A quick stroll along Wembley walk means you’ll see dozens of jerseys from rugby league teams from all around the world and feel a genuine buzz around the event. It’s a different energy to an NRL grand final or a State of Origin match. The sight when you leave Wembley Park station on Challenge Cup day and look over at the stadium is one of the greatest in world sport.
On Saturday the stadium apparently did not disappoint either with a rocking atmosphere. London followed this up on Sunday with the London Nines rugby and music event, which was billed a global celebration of league and culture, with the men’s competition being taken out by the Africa United Lions and the women’s competition by Roots Rugby, which is a Caribbean-American team.
Both teams brought passion, flare and culture to a truly international celebration that was heralded as a success by all who attended. It is amazing what can happen when people buy into the good-news stories in our game.
As we head into one of the most exciting Septembers in recent history, with a closely fought premiership, the commencement of the NRLW and a bumper international series on the horizon, there is a lot to be excited about.
One can only hope that the players, fans, officials and media let go of their petty grievances and follow the UK lead of just enjoying the game for how great it can be.