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Opinion

Here's how to save rugby league in England

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Roar Guru
23rd November, 2020
18

With Origin over and the players freed from bubble life, you may be forgiven for thinking the sport was done for the year.

But a smart-arse like myself could point out that Wigan play St Helens on Friday night (Saturday morning on Fox League) in the Super League grand final.

Why should you care? We all know the player quality is sub-optimal compared to the NRL, it’s littered with inconsistencies, scheduling issues that makes the asterisk a tradeable commodity, and a domestic structure rotten to the core.

It would be akin to asking match going Premier League football fans to get psyched for the A-League. Why should the good people of Wollongong or Townsville care? I can’t force your interest in English politicking: all I can do is provide insight into our failings for those who do care.

The game is structurally incoherent, our leadership rudderless, fan attendance declining, grassroots participation falling off a cliff, talent migrating Down Under or to rugby union, clubs facing bankruptcy and the competition’s finances flirting with semi-professionalism. But apart from that, I’m sure Mrs Lincoln enjoys the play.

What can be done to reverse this decline? For once, the solution does not lay with Australia, the game’s standard bearer.

Merely by committing to internationals and the World Club Challenge on a regular basis would be a sufficient contribution – but this alone will not solve the issues. A copy-and-paste remake of the NRL would fail like England’s opening batsmen treating the Gabba as Lord’s.

Streamlining the game (like the formation of the NRL/Super League War ceasefire), through franchising/scrapping promotion and relegation, or mergers, is not an option. North Sydney Bears fans did not shift to Manly when they were denied topflight status, and it is foolish to think that fans would here.

Whilst success and the passage of time has brought a grudging acceptance of Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra Dragons mergers, a similar proposition here would send spasmodic bouts of anger down the spines of every fan. They would sooner give up watching the game, or set up their own club, than support a new franchise imposed on their communities.

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The NRL can live without diehard Bears, Magpies and Steelers, but the game here cannot afford to lose the hundreds of Rochdale fans living in the hope of a big cup tie, or the thousands in Featherstone that dream of promotion.

What are the solutions? Start by scrapping the salary cap. We have imposed strict limitations on our ability to attract new investment or compete with the NRL or rugby union in the name of fairness.

Such an idea is antithetical to the ideas of traditional British sport, and the idea that it brings about a level playing field is rubbished by only four sides winning the grand final since its inception.

This needs to go hand in hand with a stringent Fit and Proper Persons Test, to prevent nefarious figures from corrupting the game, building foundations on quicksand or withdrawing their interest and leaving clubs, players and communities in the doldrums as has happened way too many times.

Mark Percival hands off Jake Connor

(Alex Dodd – CameraSport/Getty Images)

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Any new TV deal must include at least one live fixture free-to-air. There is a small window of opportunity available with the appointment of a new BBC Director-General committed to more live sport, and even if such a deal results in less revenue from Sky by breaking exclusivity rights, savvy clubs and leaders should be able to exploit greater national exposure and wider viewership to bring in better sponsorship rights and boost ticket sales.

Those at the helm must commit to expansion. I don’t mean at the expense of the heartlands, nor should it be unsustainable or simply for the fun of putting a pin on a map. But there are gaping opportunities available: Catalans Dragons played Wigan at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, attracting the largest regular season attendance in the competition’s history.

This should be a regular, annual event, bringing a wealth of exposure and income.

More than anything, a new structure needs to be imposed, and stuck with. There’s been more changes to the competition structure since my fandom than I care to keep count of, but the current 29-round season is unsustainable. Scrap the loop fixtures (where clubs play others three times), commit to easily understandable play-off and relegation systems, and stop faffing around with Challenge Cup dates.

It says a lot that it’s easier to publish this on an Australian website than one in the UK – with thanks to the Roar’s liberal editorial stance.

To build upon this great product and rich past, we must have competent leadership with long-term vision and the freedom to act independently of vested club interests. C’est le rêve (translation not available to those unwilling to see the potential of a French rugby league presence).