What happened this year in the world of Rugby League? Well, I guess Sam Burgess did some big hits and hurt his cheek. Ben Flower punched that guy while he was on the floor. Oh yes, and there was that funny commentary on Youtube.
These are all noteworthy, but, as an actual fan of the game, forgive me if I am a little bit frustrated when an outstanding year in the sport is forced into a pigeonhole consisting of the Next Big Thing for rugby union, a thug that represents a violence problem in the game, and a funny Northerner. It’s not like there’s been a shortage of other talking points. I’ll give you a few:
1) Castleford surprising everyone with the season of a generation, ending up one game away from two major trophies.
2) Dr Marwan Koukash doing his best to revolutionise Salford.
3) New South Wales ending the eight-year Queensland dynasty in the State of Origin series.
4) Australian superstar Jarryd Hayne moving to the NFL.
5)The ageing Golden Generation at Leeds Rhinos finally managing to win the Challenge cup.
So what should we be talking about? It seems I’m telling us to not just talk about the union-related, bad, or funny stuff; let’s widen our vision and appreciate other events and aspects of a game that has a lot to offer.
But let’s be honest, you’re still probably not interested. Whilst the odd eye-catching try (see Brett Morris “flying”) might temporarily pique a few curiosities, why do most still not care? According to the BBC (no official study, just the order of the tabs at the top of the sport page…), League is the fourth most popular team sport in the country.
Quite simply, it’s the international game. Few can contest the hypnotic draw of high-profile, competitive international sport. And it is no coincidence that the three sports with higher placed tabs on the BBC page, football, cricket and rugby union, all have strong international games. The Premier League may have a freakish omnipresence, but there are still those whose only football comes in the form of the World Cup. Union has occasional World Cups but also frequent Six Nations, and cricket has test series. This keeps up a general level of interest from the public and mainstream media, one which filters through and enthuses new generations and keeps the game thriving.
International Rugby League isn’t there yet, but it’s coming. You could sense it at last year’s World Cup; the impressive organisation of the tournament, the successes of teams such as Scotland and the USA, or England’s modern classic against New Zealand. And again, this year, there is excitement. Australia were rattled in both of their opening two matches of the Four Nations, whilst “fourth” nation Samoa have been a breath of fresh air. Perhaps this will cause Australia to look outwards, away from their self-indulgent State of Origin obsession, and upon the future, which surely lies with a strong international programme. If they needed any further convincing to find ways of making League more attractive, the NRL has just lost three of its very best players in Hayne, Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams.
So in summary, what are we to do? Well for those who dismiss League without giving it a fair viewing, I say give it that fair viewing. It deserves it and you will find it worth your while. For those in power, I say prioritise the international game. Let’s start developing smaller nations, and hold regular, well-organised and well-publicised international events. And for those like me, who fall into neither category? I suppose we’ll be spending our time badgering both camps to see the light. For all its failings, Rugby League is a positive and beautiful thing. That’s what I’m talking about.