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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Leeds Rhinos fire Brian McDermott. Good move, Bad Move?

Having taken the Rhinos to at least one final per season and led Leeds for 265 games since taking over in 2011, Andrew Riley asks if it was just a season too far for the former Royal Marine.

A couple of seasons ago, Leeds were beaten by Salford Devils, and in the press conference, I asked Brian McDermott if he felt his job was secure and if he felt that he had done all he could with the club.

He answered with his usual honesty and clarity that he still felt he was the right man for the job and he felt they could still make it to the Grand Final.

As it was, that season they went on to win the Challenge cup that year, failing to make the grand final, but still collecting silverware.

As I picked up my recorder, Brian looked at me and with an all too rare public smile, said “Tossed a few grenades in there, didn’t you?”

It was the first time I’d seen a slight crack in his usual taciturn public exterior.

Other writers who had more interaction with the man will tell you of his wit and how he was always approachable, and for my part I always found him to be open and honest.

Leeds are a club that has become unaccustomed during the summer era to losing. That Brian took charge for over 250 matches, shows just how successful the club had become under both his and Gary Hetherington’s combined leadership.

Just watch the documentary on Amazon Prime, “As Good As It Gets” to see the sort of loyalty McDermott inspired amongst his players. Even a non sporting person cannot fail to see just how he inspired players to achieve more than they felt they could.

Yes, this season Leeds have been beset by a virtually unprecedented injury list, but then don’t all clubs have to contend with injury problems?

His record speaks for itself.

265 games, 162 wins and 97 losses.

An impressive record in any sport, but sadly, this season, having lost another pair of talismanic players in Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire his team have failed to edge out tight games, and losing 7 in a row was just too much this time for Mr Hetherington.

Given the mooted changes for the 2019 season (Nobody actually knows what the league structure will look like yet, which is a travesty for a professional sport) Leeds were worried about being dragged into a possible relegation fight, with a number of Championship clubs determined to secure Super League status, the chance was too great and so Brian had to go.

This was a man whose silverware record reads:

Four Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups, a League Leaders’ Shield and a World Club Challenge.

Chief executive Gary Hetherington said the club would “forever be indebted” to McDermott.

“The club’s most successful coach has also helped to forge a rugby operation with toughness, resilience and a strong desire to succeed, which his successor will inherit,” said Hetherington.

“Eight years is a long time for any head coach at the same club and we have enjoyed much success and endured some difficult times along the way when tough decisions had to be made.

“We have always come through strongly but I do believe our present predicament requires change and that this is the right call for the club.

“Brian is a man of the utmost integrity and passion for rugby league. He has so much to offer the sport and I have no doubt he will go on to achieve more success in the future.”

For his part, McDermott had this to say:

“Obviously it is not a decision I agree with,” said McDermott.

“I am extremely disappointed this has happened. I wish everyone at the club the best and my thoughts will be with the team on Sunday and through to the end of the season.”

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.

Whats your State of Mind?

As the State of Mind charity prepares to take over the Super League for an entire round, Andrew Riley went along to the AJ Bell stadium in Salford to see what the charity does and how you can be part of a world record attempt this coming Wednesday…

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Magic is on the move, but where should it go?

After a successful few years in Newcastle, it looks like the RFL are keen to move on. Andrew Riley looks at a couple of the places mentioned.

A lot of fans will tell you that Newcastle has been a roaring success as a venue for Magic Weekend, and, as someone who covered two seasons up there, I’d agree. As venues go, its a corker!

Easy access to the bars and restaurants of Newcastle, a fan zone that has developed into a great place to meet up and chat with fellow fans from other clubs, and of course Rugby AM.

Given that the event was derided by some at its inception, the RFL have worked wonders to turn it into one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

For me its up there with the Grand final and the Challenge Cup final as an event in its own right.

Back in 2007 just over 59,000 watched 6 super league matches over two days in Cardiff, and hardly anyone outside of the sport thought it was going to be viable to carry on, but the following season, again, in the capital of the principality, over 63,000 hardy souls made the trip.

After two years, it was decided that a move North was needed & the event landed in Edinburgh for two seasons.

In 2011 however, it returned to Cardiff, but this time it was as the opening round of the season, and after criticism of the “seeding” of games, it was decided that local derbies would form the weekend.

The attendance was however down on the previous years, with just 60,214 heading to Wales in February.

Next up was Manchester, and the Etihad stadium, home of Manchester City, and the matches reverted to a mid season set of derbies, rather than a season opener, over the bank holiday weekend.

This, and the fantastic weather, saw the largest ever crowd of 63,716 attend.

The event was to stay in Manchester for the following two years, growing in stature and attendance each time, 64,552 was the highest ever for a Magic Weekend, while the Saturday attendance of 36,339 was the highest ever single-day figure until both records were surpassed the consequent year in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Looking forward though, after four very successful years in Newcastle, the RFL are looking to move the event again, with Manchester being a front runner, and rumoured to be part of the deal which will see the RFL installed as tenants at the nearby “Sports City”.

From a purely personal point of view, I’d happily see it return to Manchester, as its a simple tram ride there and back, but many would see it as a backwards step, and are keen on taking it abroad, with Toronto, Dublin and even New York being mentioned.

I’m all for expanding the game, but are we at risk of doing damage to the sport by rushing to outposts (after all, we still don’t have a South Wales super league team, nor a Scottish team) that don’t really “get” the sport as yet.

I’ll admit, the Canadians have taken to the sport, and the possibility of a team in the Big Apple (not Bramley, the other one!) is a mouthwatering prospect, but if we’re going abroad, then for me, Florida has to be the option.

Fans can combine their holiday with a bit of rugby league, get a decent tan and maybe even take in a baseball game.

The universities there have stadia that put some of our grounds to shame, so finding a venue to suit everyone shouldn’t be a problem.

There is already a league structure in Florida, so the appetite is certainly growing for the sport there, and a fair old ex-pat community as well.

For me though, the weekend SHOULD stay in Newcastle. Its just feels right.

Thunder playing on the Friday followed by a complete round of games. Rather than derbies though, I’d make the build up to the weekend all that much better by drawing the games out of a hat a couple of weeks before, and turning the draw into the sort of media event that the Challenge Cup has become.