2019 and the start of (another) new era

I do love a great game of rugby.

Note, I didn’t clarify that statement with either a “league” or “union” caveat. I like watching both codes. I was brought up in Hull by a father who had played union as a Marine, but when he moved to Hull in the late ’60s, his mates took him to Craven Park and he began to watch league, and Hull KR in particular.

Growing up, he happily took me to Craven Park and also sat me down to watch union on TV whenever possible, hence my growing up with an appreciation for both codes.

It’s only been in the last 10 years that I’ve followed league in a semi-professional capacity as a journalist and have also covered a smaller amount of union in that time, the differences in the game have become more apparent off the field than on it.

League has always been the lesser of the two in the eyes of both the public and mainstream media. Just look at the amount of broadcast time given to the Autumn internationals on both terrestrial and satellite broadcasters.

From what I can gather, Sky has no interest in showing international league at all.

The BBC were practically given the rights to England v New Zealand and only showed England games from the 2017 World Cup, meaning that Wales and Scotland’s fans had to shell out an additional £9.99 for Premier Sports if they wanted to follow games live.

Broadcasters are falling over themselves to cover union. BT Sport has been showing three games on a Saturday covering the European cup alongside Channel 4, Channel 5 shows the Gallagher Premiership and the BBC will be showing the 6 nations alongside ITV until 2021.

All of Wales’ home matches will be shown live on the BBC, along with France and Scotland home matches. ITV will screen England, Ireland and Italy home games.

I think Sky have done a great job of standing still where broadcast of league is concerned. Yes, they trialled 3D league, but only gave it 6 or maybe 7 games. To be fair, Sky has all but binned 3D as a broadcast medium for live anything, so to even have had that small amount was something, but there is no longer a “Boots n All” show, and I’ve yet to see an advert for the new season on there.

The problem lies with the game still thinking its small, which, compared to union, it is.

I’m really hopeful that the new structure brought in by Robert Elstone and his team will mean that Super League undergoes a period of controlled growth, with clubs in the Championship and below having the chance to grow organically and that promotion and relegation in the old-fashioned new way of one up and one down.

I’m hopeful that Mr Elstone will at least put the new broadcast rights out to a much wider process than we are led to believe the previous one was.

League is in desperate need of a great season in 2019. We are (again) at the beginning of (another) brave new restructure.

What is needed is a competition where the playoff spots are changing all the way until the final day, as is the relegation spot. A competition where players become superstars outside of their home town, but who can (like Jonathon Davies 30 years ago) make headlines on the front pages for the right reasons in National papers.

Until league can compete with union on the screens of the UK, it will always be second best.

I don’t believe league will ever be as big as union currently is, there is too much of a gap to close in that respect, but I do believe that with the right management in place, and the right people making the off-field deals, we can at least compete when it comes to getting the product on screens in front of viewers and then we can start to get people into stadiums.

If people can’t see what’s on offer, how will they know where to watch?

This season, I should be providing coverage of Rochdale Hornets for Roch Valley Radio

I hope if you can’t be at the ground, you will join me online using the link above

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England to face French test ahead of Kiwi series

The RFL today announced an additional international game ahead of the three game series against the Kiwis, with the French national team to visit the UK.

England Rugby League Elite Men’s squad will face France at Leigh Sports Village on Wednesday, October 17 (KO 7.45pm) in preparation for the Autumn International Series against New Zealand.

After defeating the Kiwis 36-18 in front of a crowd of 19,320 at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado in the first international Rugby League game to be staged in the USA for 18 years, this game against France will be the first time UK supporters will be able to watch the World Cup finalists in action in this country since the 2016 Four Nations.

France played in The 2017 Rugby League World Cup in the same group as England, Lebanon and defending champions Australia. France got off to the worst possible start, suffering a shock loss to Lebanon 29-18 in Canberra. The tournament did not get any better for The French as they were then thumped 52-6 by Australia and then suffered another big defeat to England 36-6 in Perth.

England head coach Wayne Bennett will be hoping the French offer a sterner test this time around.

In 2015, Leigh Sports Village hosted England v France as a warm up fixture prior to the Autumn International Series against the Kiwis that saw England lift the Baskerville Shield, whilst it also staged games during the 2013 RLWC.

Director of Rugby, Kevin Sinfield said, “2018 is a hugely important year for England Rugby League and the mid-season test against Denver was the first step in building on the success of reaching the World Cup final in 2017.

“The Denver Test showed the appetite for International Rugby League away from the UK and Australia and the victory against New Zealand showed that we’re heading in the right direction as a team.

“The French Tests have been good for us over the last couple of years and it’s great to have another game lined up on home soil ahead of the Autumn Series. It will give the team the chance to regroup after the end of the season before we face New Zealand again.”

Tickets for the game against France are on sale now at rugby-league.com and are priced at £20 for Adults and £5 for Juniors. ‘Our League’ members can purchase tickets and save 50% on both Adult and Junior prices. Visit rugby-league.com/tickets for more details and to book.

Tickets for this Autumn’s International Series against New Zealand are also on sale at rugby-league.com/tickets and are priced from £25 for adults and £12.50 for concessions. ‘Our League’ members will get £5 off all ticket categories when purchased through the Our League App or website.

Our League members can also take advantage of an exclusive offer which gives them 3 games for the price of 2, visit rugby-league.com/tickets for more information.

Stop play acting! You are killing the sport.


When I failed to get RFL accreditation for the 2018 season, I decided that a season off to concentrate on my new full time job wasn’t a bad thing. After all, I had spent most of the last year concentrating on my final year at university and hadn’t fulfilled the RFL requirement for published pieces (Although I do run my own website with interviews and match reports…) to gain that fabled plastic pass.

It would give me chance to sit and watch the sport as a fan again, rather than with a critical journalistic eye.

Sadly, that is almost impossible.

The game is being turned on its head as we watch. Players are doing their best to milk penalties, slow the ruck, con match officials and generally stop the game being the fast, free flowing sport I grew up watching.

Yes, it has always been thus, but I am seeing more of it than ever.

I’m used to football players acting like they’ve been shot when an opposing player brushes past them, but when RL players are starting to milk penalties in a similar vein, the game needs a shake up.

I honestly believe this is being coached into players, rather than the players themselves deciding to con not only the match officials, but the paying fans as well.

It comes down to coaches telling players they will not stand to see such play acting, rather than actively encouraging it.

There also needs to be better awareness from the match officials of players locking in an opponent to gain an advantage. Perhaps the touch judges could be better placed and make the man in the middle aware when they see something, rather than just wandering up and down the line?

During the Challenge Cup game between Featherstone and Hull FC, it was the touch judge who spotted the knee from Danny Washbrook and he was (harshly in my opinion, given the rest of the game) sent to the sin bin.

Why can’t they take more responsibility for what happens on the field?

The game I love watching appears to be dying a slow death by a thousand cuts, and we’re all partly responsible.

Match officials are too easily conned, players are taking the easy route to gain an advantage, coaches are allowing players and coaching them into how to gain a penalty and journalists and writers of the sport are not castigating players and clubs for all of the above, perhaps for fear of losing access to clubs and players.

Fans?

They should be shaming players for simulating injury, but like fans of any team, they will only see opposing players doing it, not their own.

I wont be bothering to try and join the ranks of the press next season.

I don’t see the point in writing about a sport where players and coaches are only too happy to con the paying public, and get away with it because of a lack of leadership from the sports governing body, because leadership comes from the top.

That means coaches, officials, fans and the RFL themselves needs to get a grip of our sport before it does lose all its credibility.

Rugby League is a tough game.

Lets keep it that way.

 

2018 Super League season predictions and Joel Tomkins interview

Here we go…2018 season is nearly upon us, and this year I will be posting very few match reports. Because I spent the back end of last season concentrating on my university studies and getting a job, I failed to get enough bylines for RFL accreditation in 2018, not to worry though, the clubs themselves have been more than understanding and are happy enough to grant access to players and coaches for interviews.

I’d like to wish every player, coach and fan of rugby league all the very best for 2018. With a replacement for Nigel Wood yet to be decided, it’s bound to be another year of ups and downs for the usual clubs, but hopefully Red Hall can sort out a peaceful and smooth succession…

Given that the clubs and the RFL have yet to decide how the league will be structured next year, it looks like the club v RFL war will carry on until one side either loses or gets bored.

Looking ahead, here are my predictions for 2018, as well as the top four in the Championship.

Super League

  1. Wigan
  2. Warrington
  3. Leeds Rhinos
  4. Hull FC
  5. Castleford Tigers
  6. St. Helens
  7. Hull KR
  8. Wakefield Trinity
  9. Catalan Dragons
  10. Huddersfield Giants
  11. Salford Red Devils
  12. Widnes

Championship

  1. Leigh Centurions
  2. Toronto Wolfpack
  3. Featherstone Rovers
  4. London Broncos

SL Grand Final Winners

  1. St. Helens

Challenge Cup Winners

  1. Leeds Rhinos

 


Joel Tomkins

Joel Tomkins

When you hear the surname Tomkins, most rugby league fans first thoughts are to the Wigan full back, Sam, but his elder brother Joel has his own ambitions, not only for his on-field exploits, but his life post game as well.

“This year, we’re aiming to do the treble” he tells me at the Warriors media launch in the stunning surroundings of the Haigh Hall country house, on the outskirts of the town.

“We are more than capable of winning the Grand Final, Challenge Cup and the league leaders shield”

After a spell in the “other” code of the game, he is aware that at the end of his current 2-year deal, he will have to prove himself in order to keep playing:

“I’m the wrong side of 30 now, and after injury stopped me making as many appearances last season as I would have liked, and I appreciate being in this position, as I might not have too many years left playing this game”

The groin injury that side-lined him for some of last year appears to be gone, and Joel says this pre-season has been one that he has enjoyed immensely.

Having won every major domestic honour in the game, he says that it’s the winning of more trophies that keeps him hungry as a player:

“When you win a Grand final or a Challenge Cup, you get a taste for it, and you want it again.

“I know I’m in a privileged position, coming in and training with an immense bunch of athletes who all want to win things.

“We get paid to train and do something we enjoy, and OK, there are times when its tough, giving up weekends and time with the family, but I can’t complain, its an honour to come in and play for this club.”

Looking further ahead, Joel has his wife, Nicola, as well has there two children, Anna and Seth, and I asked if they enjoy watching him play the sport he loves, and if he’d be happy with Seth following in his footsteps;

“I wouldn’t push him into playing the game, but I suppose that’s because I’ve been playing the game for 20 plus years, I’ll be happy if he plays tennis or golf.

Having a family changes your perspective and priorities on the game. Up to being 25, rugby was all I thought about, but getting married and having kids changes all of that.”

Looking further ahead, I asked if he fancied following in the footsteps of a fair few others and into the Wigan version of the Liverpool FC “bootroom” and onto the coaching staff after he hangs up his boots:

“No, I don’t see it for me. You have to really want to be a coach, watching hour after hour of game time during the week, as well as picking all the side and getting players ready isn’t for me.

I want to stay in the game, but on the management side. I’d rather follow the likes of Kris (Radlinski) and Kevin (Sinfield) into the business side of the game, that’s where I see my future.”

Surrounded by his team mates, he cuts a more introspective figure than some of his more outgoing team mates, and that’s borne out by his plans for the future.

He may not be the first Tomkins that comes to mind, but he certainly wants to be the one that leaves the lasting legacy on and off the field at Wigan Warriors.

 

How do you promote a sport full of power and passion?

By not bothering to show any of the sport itself according to the new RFL Super League 2018 launch video.

Recently, the RFL marketing department have managed to get a couple of things spot on. The new OuRLeague app is fantastic. Superb content, really engaging and easy to use. During the World Cup it became the go to app for info on England and what the players were up to.

Then we get the 2018 launch video…

We know that professional rugby league players are supremely fit. We also know that the Brownlee brothers are superb athletes as well.

What we dont see is any reason for watching the sport when the season starts in just over a week.

Where are the big hits, the jinking runs through defences, the offloads and the magic? Apparently, the public dont need to see the skill of the players, but images of them running up and down in the snow tell you all you need to know about the lack of imagination shown by the RFL marketing department.

The RFL have some superb staff, but marketing needs a shake up.

Why advertise along the M62?

You’re playing into the hands of those who look down their noses at the sport and call it parochial!

Advertise along the M6 and the M1. It’s a summer sport, entice people heading to Bridlington, Scarborough, Blackpool and the Lake district to take in a game, not those who already know where games are played.

What does this video tell anyone who accidentally happens upon it about the game these athletes play?

Nothing…

I appreciate that there is an air of change at Red Hall and Media City with Nigel Wood leaving, but if we allow the game to continue to stagnate at every level, which is what we are in danger of doing if we don’t look for a candidate for his position from outside of the sport, we are in danger of the sport as a whole dying.

Thats not just my view, but one given to me by one of the most respected writers on the sport. As it was a private conversation, I’m not going to name him here, but it shows just how far those who write about the sport feel the game and it’s leadership have sunk.

Indeed, he felt that by the time of the 2025 World Cup, the UK version of the game may well be entirely amateur.