It’s been another off-season from hell for the NRL, although this year the bad-news stories are the kind that head office would almost be happy about.
For a sport that has no full-time reporters in any of the national daily newspapers, rugby league in the United Kingdom and France has certainly seen an unprecedented amount of coverage in recent weeks.
The only catch is that very little of that coverage has been about the actual footy.
The signing of dual-code superstar Sonny Bill Williams by the Toronto Wolfpack created headlines either side of the Atlantic as he signed a record deal in either rugby code for the newly promoted club.
But it did not take long for the former All Black and NRL premiership-winner to create controversy when he recently sought permission from Super League administration to cover up the main sponsor of the competition – betting agency Betfred – as the business runs contrary to his Muslim beliefs. This drew the ire of many Super League clubs and fans across the channel with Hull FC chairman Adam Pearson coming out as the most vocal.
“We welcome Toronto into the league and the different perspectives they bring to things,” Pearson said.
“But I think they should embrace Super League now rather than moan about it.
“All I’ve heard so far is that they don’t like this, they don’t like that and I read yesterday that they ‘inherited’ this (central funding) deal.”
In response to Williams’ refusal to wear the Betfred logo and also comments by Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott that Toronto have been unfairly disadvantaged by the Super League’s central funding and salary cap arrangements, Pearson’s combative response mostly drew praise in East Yorkshire and further solidified the sentiment in Canada’s largest city that their team is far from accepted.
While this sort of organic rivalry between rugby league traditionalists and evergreen newcomers from a farflung outpost is great for headlines, you have to wonder, is it perhaps making the divide a touch too wide?
After winning promotion last season, the welcome from heartland clubs and their fans has so far been about as warm as a Toronto January, so the Wolfpack can’t be blamed for feeling like it is perhaps them versus rugby league.
As the dust had barely settled on the Sonny Bill furore, expansion veterans the Catalans Dragons threw the rugby league world into a spin by signing controversial Wallabies exile Israel Folau. While the human headline delivered stories and editorials from Perpignan to Parramatta, once again the push back from traditional English clubs was swift and direct, particularly from Wigan, who announced a pride day celebration for when they host Folau.
While these sort of disputes help sell newspapers and give commentators something to talk about, is it creating a division too wide in northern hemisphere league?
There is no denying expansion clubs in areas like Toronto and Perpignan have unique challenges and should feel supported by their fellow clubs, especially as they head into the marketplace and try to secure broadcast deals.
Reciprocally, expansion clubs should work hard to build harmony with the more traditional clubs. Decisions like signing Folau should be carefully considered as they are divisive, especially as several openly gay athletes play rugby league at professional levels.
Rugby league in the northern hemisphere is changing rapidly and when that happens there is always push back. Many of the bigger clubs come from working-class towns and many of their fans do it tough. Teams in Canada and France add little value to their Super League experience, so some reluctance to any sort of change is understandable. Yet to the broader rugby league community, there is an air of optimism in the game.
Before a ball was kicked last Thursday, a new energy crept over the crowd and through the Sky Sports commentary team, and Round 1 did not disappoint with some exciting rugby league being played, especially by Aussie imports such as Aidan Sezer for Huddersfield and Bevan French for Wigan.
Derbies like those between Hull FC and Hull KR and rivalries like that of Wigan and St Helens pay the bills, but you can’t help but attribute the healthy ratings on Sky in the United Kingdom to the anticipation around the game’s recent growth.
While both the expansion clubs had underwhelming outings in Round 1, the fact that rugby league is now in nightly news bulletins in Toronto and has recently made national sports news in France is overall a good thing.
Now we just all need to get along.