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Monday, 8 February 2010

Super League - The Battle & Bravado Is Back, and Why The RFL Will Never Widen The Appeal Of Rugby League Without Massive Reform

It was with a fastening of a button, and a half mesmerised observance of my breath against the cold East Yorkshire air that we Hull Kingston Rovers fans hailed the return of Super League to Craven Park.

The assembled faithful, just over 9000 of us in total, stood huddled together in the east stand of Hull KR's stadium in East Hull, bracing ourselves against the piercing winds that were blowing in from the open expanses of the River Humber, being funnelled from the North Sea and fired down the river's estuary, Craven Park seemingly the intended target for the full majesterial force of mother nature's off shore exploits.

The burger bars did a healthy and brisk trade, throngs of fans, usually queuing for bottled beers or plastic beakers of bitter hopping subconsciously from foot to foot as they waited in line for coffees, burgers and hot dogs, desperate for any insulation against the shrill winds as they stood discussing the close season activity, and debating healthily the merits of the strategies selected by the Hull KR coach, Justin Morgan, and the improvements made to the ground since last we assembled here at the business end of the previous season.

I watched this from a vantage point high in the east stand. Not only did it offer a great view of the action to come, it also offered up views of alot of Hull's most disadvantaged areas, both industrially and socially.

In many ways, Rugby League, and the battle and bravado that accompanies it have long since acted as a rallying point for the citizens of Hull, through recession, abandonment, poverty, tragedy and back again, and the circle looks set to continue well into the problems that my home city has to face in the years to come if it is to ever haul itself up by the bootstraps, and drag itself clear of the precipice upon which it teeters.

As the hooter sounded, signifying the start of the game, and indeed season for Hull KR, we settled into watching the contest as Rovers slowly started taking control of the game over their opponents, the Salford City Reds. Within ten minutes, Peter Fox had crossed the Salford line twice, and with the tries converted this gave Rovers a ten point cushion from which to build...

Rovers went on to win the game by 30-6, but in watching the game, and observing the chanting, the wit, the humour, and the collective spirit that was conjured up by this all encompassing spectacle that is Rugby League I got to pondering the future direction of the game, and the problems that have been endemic within it for far too long now that have, and will continue to undermine any attempts by the Rugby Football League to expand the game, and build its popularity beyond the 'M62 corridor'

I think that I can honestly say that in three quarters at least of the games that I have paid to attend, the whole experience has been marred by the lack of consistent refereeing that can be exposed successfully to any form of scrutiny.

We had the pleasure of Richard Silverwood at Sunday's match, and yet again, despite the fact that Rovers ran out winners by a sizeable margin, the game was to an extent spoiled by the inconsistent performance of the main match official.

At previous matches, I have been able to say exactly the same thing about Ashley Klein, Steve Ganson, Ben Thaler and others.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that being a Rugby League referee must be an exceptionally demanding and difficult role to fill. However, these people are meant to be doing so to an elite level, and if I am perfectly honest, I cannot see how anyone could claim that their levels of performance could indeed be termed as 'elite'

In almost every match we see poor policing of offsides, poor refereee positioning, inconsistent monitoring of knock on and play the ball, almost non existent policing of forward passes, and some quite frankly bizarre interpretation of incidents that do from time to time, simply astound and amaze...

In addition to this, we have the Rugby Football League's disciplinary committee that fail in just about all attempts to measure themselves up to the requirements of consistent actions.

Time and again we have a player from one club being disciplined for an offence, and the next week a player from a different club being handed a completely different punishment, whether in terms of severity or nature, despite the incident, charge and circumstances being at times almost identical.

The Rugby Football League talks tough and big on wanting to spread the appeal of Rugby League, yet it still acts as if it is the centre point of an old boys network, where you can expect leniency if you are employed by a club who are 'on the inside' yet you should expect to be thrown to the wolves if your club is not one of the chosen few..

We have a ridiculously small pool of top level referees. The RFL constantly talk of the shortage of match officials, yet they do nothing to attract new referees to the sport.

They talk of wanting to build the game steadily, yet they choose to ignore the many healthy developing clubs in the south of England, in the north east, and indeed in Scotland, and instead super impose a club on the communities of south Wales, and they propel a second rate french team into the elite of the sport without having given the logistics involved even the merest of a second glance..

Cheap and easy headlines are great in the short term, but they do nothing for the long term future and the viability and solidity of our great game.

What the RFL should be doing is breaking the influence of the usual suspects within the game (Leeds, Bradford, Wigan, St Helens) in terms of the way in which the game is run and its rules implemented, and making the game more democratic to all clubs within the RFL family, with fairness and developmental assistance being made more readily available to all in order to ensure that these up and coming amateur and low level league clubs have targets to aim for.

The league should also be widening the pool of elite level referees. They could learn many lessons from our friends at the RFU in this respect. Their refereeing programmes leave the RFL languishing in the dark ages, and their level of organisation is simply light years ahead.

They should be identifying the promising clubs in terms of untouched territory and local talent, and building them up SLOWLY and STEADILY, allowing them to build up a local following that is loyal, and that will make it worthwhile staging games by providing respectable attendance figures (Harlequins RL for example rarely manage attendances that exceed 3000, despite being in London!!)

It will also build local dynasties of Rugby League players and families. The game can only truly establish itself within new communities when it is allowed to put down deep and sturdy roots. No disrespect to the players and staff of Celtic Crusaders and Catalan Dragons, but this has not happened in Wales and France.

Rugby League is a working man and woman's sport. That is a fact. It will not expand in a viable way without the RFL playing the long game, and facilitating the dedicated amateur clubs to take small, steady, regular steps forwards, in terms of recruitment, training, development, strategy and infrastructure.

Most of all, Rugby League would be allowed to flourish and grow properly if the RFL simply started thinking along the lines of what is best for the game at all levels, both now and in the future, instead of trying to vainly keep up with the activities of the much more affluent and better organised Rugby Football Union, as well as keeping in favour with the writers of Boots 'n' All et al....

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