England captain Jamie Peacock made an interesting suggestion recently that the RFL ought to employ a publicist like Max Clifford to raise the national profile of England’s star players. Peacock is clearly frustrated that Rugby League players do not enjoy the same kind of profile as their counterparts in other sports despite their deeds on the pitch more than justifying it. He has a point. It is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most famous person playing the game in this country right now is Gareth Thomas, not because of his achievements to date with Crusaders RL, but because of his achievements in Welsh rugby union and with the British Lions before switching codes.
I had the privilege of meeting Alex Murphy for this month’s Guest Room feature and it struck me at the time, even before learning that Alex had the opportunity to become a professional football player with Everton before choosing Rugby League, that given his sporting achievements Alex should be right up there at the top table with England’s footballing legends Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. The two Bobs are always well remembered whenever a World Cup rolls around for their deeds in winning the trophy in 1966. Alex won the Rugby League equivalent along with a host of other accolades, the Ashes, the Challenge Cup and the League Championship which are arguably a damn sight harder to win than any round ball tournament but, well known though he is within Rugby League circles, at least amongst those of a certain age who remember first hand his days as a player and a coach, to the majority of people in this country he is not.
Perhaps things might have been different had he managed to appear on Michael Parkinson’s legendary Saturday night television chat show in the 1970s to sit alongside people like Geoffrey Boycott or Brian Clough. They never seemed to be off that show from my recollection, perhaps because Parky was a fellow Yorkshireman and they were controversial figures with a store of great anecdotes guaranteed to make good TV. Parky was supposed to be a Rugby League fan though, and Alex could certainly have given ‘Boycs’ and ‘Cloughie’ a run for their money. Now if he’d played football for Everton…
A similar case is another great Rugby League figure, Frank Myler. It is almost exactly forty years ago since Frank lifted the Ashes trophy for Great Britain in Australia on the 1970 tour. How many people watching Rugby League these days know that, let alone those members of the general public who would have no hesitation in naming Bobby Moore as the last England captain to lift football’s World Cup, even if they have never watched a single game from start to finish in their lives or were born many years after the event.
Rugby League will never have the same kind of profile in this country as football. That’s a given, and we shouldn’t worry about that too much, but Peacock is right when he points out that Rugby League has had its moments in the glow of national publicity in the past when the names of its stars transcended the innate parochialism of our sport and the stifling ignorance of the wider media. Ellery Hanley is the most obvious, even though he hung up his boots in 1997 and spent part of his time as Great Britain captain refusing to speak to the press. In many ways, his awkwardness in that regard only added to his allure, though it didn’t seem like that at the time. Martin Offiah is another. Both were lucky in terms of timing. Their deeds on the field coincided with a period when Rugby League’s international profile was at its peak. Games against Australia and New Zealand were broadcast live on the BBC on Saturday afternoons. They played in the biggest venues such as Wembley and Old Trafford in front of huge crowds. That matters enormously when it comes to turning good sportsmen into national celebrities. Nowadays, their modern day counterparts simply do not have the same kind of opportunities to shine on the national stage. Even our biggest international games are played in the sport’s own backyard and broadcast live to a much diminished audience to suit the demands of pay-TV. The sport may be financially richer as a result, but it is poorer in terms of profile. Hanley appeared on ITV’s top rating show ‘Dancing On Ice’ while Offiah took part in the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ years after their playing careers ended, but it is hard to imagine any current international player being invited on these type of shows for fear the audience might wonder who they are, and that is a real shame. It may be easier to get them on something like ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’ but I think they’d be better keeping a low profile along with their dignity than resorting to chomping on a dead kangaroo’s genitalia in the quest for 15 minutes of fame.
Max Clifford might be able to manage the fall-out from a football star’s messy divorce or turn a drug habit into a cry for help through the pages of the Sunday tabloids or Heat magazine, but he tends to handle the careers of the notorious, the talentless or the already famous on the way down. He and his ilk are good at what they do, which is why I can mention names like Kerry Katona and Jade Goody here and be quite certain that most of the readers of Rugby League World will be aware who they are, even if they have no idea what made them famous in the first place. Celebrity, especially the empty kind can be a fickle mistress and it is hard to see someone like Clifford being the sole answer to reversing Rugby League’s decline into the backwaters of national media awareness in this country. Not without the game doing something to help itself first. But what?
There’s no doubt that Rugby League is a great game and those who play it are capable of exceptional deeds on the field of play. Anyone who doubts that only has to watch the recent Wigan-St Helens derby which had everything anyone could ever wish for in a classic sporting encounter. A more dramatic contrast to the turgid sterility of many of the games in the football World Cup in South Africa would be hard to find. The problem for us is that millions are engaged watching the latter and are absorbed by every stultifying moment. Although Wigan and Saints will have thrilled everyone who saw it, that only amounts to a few hundred thousand people, most of whom will already know how good they are anyway.
The club game is not the passport to national identity and profile. It never will be. The national side is. Though Rugby League will never match the profile of football, we can learn some significant lessons from it, and from a player now within our own game, Gareth Thomas, who built his name playing in another sport but, more crucially, through playing for his country.
Rugby League must establish for itself a regular series of meaningful international events that are played on the biggest stages in front of the biggest crowds and broadcast live on as many television sets as can be mustered. That is far from easy challenge, but until it happens, not even the dark arts of media manipulation employed by Max Clifford will be able to turn our star players into household names. At least not for the right reasons anyway.
Page XIII Editorial – First published in Rugby League World Issue 352 (Aug 2010)