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

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.

 

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.

Roar on the England team to victory on Saturday

As good as it was to watch the Union boys win a World Cup in Australia back in 2003, to see the League team do it in 2017 would be an even bigger feat of sporting prowess.

Sadly, most of the mainstream media have ignored Rugby League for so long, its not a shock if you haven’t heard about a World Cup taking place in Australia.

There are plenty out there, ready to belittle the achievement of a team making it to a World Cup final, but look beyond the doubters, and see just how hard these players play the game, how tough they have to be, mentally and physically, just to make it in a sport where, sadly, a lot of players get by on part time wages, and only the very best get paid the big bucks.
Come Saturday, when the two teams take the field, every single player will have the weight of history on his shoulders.
It’s been 22 years since we last took to the field in a World Cup final, and 45 years since we last won it, and back then, we were Great Britain.
I’m no old romantic, I understand that beating one of the finest International teams, coached by one of the all time greatest players EVER to grace a pitch will be no easy feat, but I do believe this England team, if they play for a full 80 minutes, are more than capable of beating anyone.
It’s the playing for the full 80 minutes that has me worried.
During this tournament, they have too often switched off when seemingly in the box seat, and were very lucky not to lose to Tonga in their semi final last weekend.
A more experienced side would have beaten England.
The pinnacle of every sport is to become its World Champion.
This England squad are just 80 minutes away from becoming that.
In Wayne Bennett we certainly have the quiet man of coaching, but it’s out of his hands once the chosen XIII cross the whitewashed sideline in, what will be for some, the biggest game of their careers.
I cannot stress enough, just how tough it will be to beat the Kangaroos in their own back yard, but if it wasn’t for hope, what would we sports journalists write about?
The RFL team out there in Australia have worked wonders with Social media to keep fans back in England as up to date as possible, and the “OuRLeague” app has been superb. I’m happy to admit, they have surprised me with their ability to engage with fans in way they havent managed before.
No England player has EVER lifted the trophy, so here’s to our captain, Sean O’Loughlin, Slammin’ Sam Burgess, Flyin’ Jermaine McGillvary and rest of the boys.
Get up early Sunday and roar the Lions of England home to victory.
#BringItHome

The squads

England: G Widdop, J McGillvary, K Watkins, J Bateman, R Hall, K Brown, L Gale, C Hill, J Roby, J Graham, S Burgess, E Whitehead, S O’Loughlin, (capt).

Interchanges: A Walmsley, B Currie, T Burgess, C Heighington.

Australia squad: B Slater, D Gagai, W Chambers, J Dugan, V Holmes, M Morgan, C Cronk, Woods, C Smith, D Klemmer, B Cordner, M Gillett, J McGuire, W Graham, J McLean, R Campbell-Gillard, T Frizell, F Kaufusi, T Trbojevic, J Mansour, J Maloney.

Looking beyond the final, England will take on the Kiwis in a three game Autumn test series in 2018.

Who knows?

Buy your tickets now and you could be watching the World Champions…

International Test Series Fixtures

Saturday October 27 (14:30), KCOM Stadium, Hull.

Saturday November 3 (14:30), Anfield, Liverpool

Sunday November 11 (15:00), Elland Road, Leeds