So that’s 2010 finally done and dusted. The England Academy team managed to blow away the annual hangover of international failure and give us something to smile about by defeating the Australian Schoolboys in their two-Test series. After the senior England team’s Four Nations flop, the Academy success has demonstrated that English players can cut it against their Australian counterparts after all. It’s time to dump the inferiority complex. The big test now will be to see how the players in each of these opposing squads go on to develop their skills with senior clubs. Will the defeated Australians race ahead in the NRL, or can the triumphant England youngsters make the best of the opportunities that come their way and secure their status as big name homegrown first team stars of the future?
I hope it is the latter.
A new year is a time to look forward, so here are a few more of my hopes (and fears) for 2011.
I hope it doesn’t snow in February and muck up the Super League Magic Weekend. The British weather is often described as unpredictable, but it isn’t really. It often snows in winter. The scenes on most Christmas cards are a bit of a giveaway. They don’t depict Santa Claus in boardshorts surfing his way across the rooftops. He’s generally in a sledge, a mode of transport best suited to snowy conditions. As we’ve seen already this winter, our country’s infrastructure has trouble coping with snow and planning for it seems to take the form of hoping it won’t come, rather than putting in place effective contingencies if it does. A few flakes of the white stuff in the run up to Super League’s Cardiff extravaganza could be a real spanner in the works.
The Magic Weekend is a concept that has divided opinion since it was first conceived. To some, it is a carnival of Rugby League; feast yourself silly on game after game, all in one place. To others, it is a bloated, over-expensive, under-promoted affair that fails to capture the enthusiasm of enough fans to make it worth persevering with. Moving it away from a Bank Holiday weekend is a gamble. Using it as the launchpad for the new season is an even bigger gamble. Staging it in Cardiff in February is the biggest gamble of all. The weather will have no impact on the games inside the Millennium Stadium courtesy of the closed roof, but it could have a major impact on the number of fans who can get there to see them. So, fingers crossed the weather is on our side and all those other gambles pay off too.
Moving on, whichever way you look at it, 2011 is going to be a difficult year financially for many people. Given the impact of government spending cuts, tax rises, public sector job losses, rising fuel prices and inflation, zero wage rises and other factors as yet unforseen, there’s not going to be a lot of spare cash sloshing around. Our Rugby League clubs are going to have to work extra hard to dislodge the few remaining leisure pounds from people’s pockets.
That’s why I hope those clubs who have been innovative already in coming up with ways to encourage people to support them reap the reward of their initiative. Perhaps the most obvious to date has been Bradford Bulls, with their eye-catching discounted season ticket scheme which required a magic number of 10,000 advance pledges to be made to secure a price drop to just £60. The Bulls got the pledges, but more encouragingly, they managed to turn those pledges into sales and head into the new season with a guaranteed support base of 10,000 plus before a ball has been kicked or passed in anger at Odsal. Coming off the back of a hugely disappointing season in 2010, it is a remarkable achievement, but no matter what price has been paid for a season ticket, only improved performances on the pitch will keep the fans happy and willing to keep coming back for more.
I hope what happens on the pitch, not just in Bradford but at every one of our clubs no matter what competition or what ground they are playing in, will be the key to success in 2011, but I fear it will be anything but. Rugby League is a sport that thrives on controversy. If we’re not arguing the toss over the rights and wrongs of who should be in Super League, we’re arguing over the structure of the various competitions, when and how many games should be played, what standards our grounds should be expected to achieve, how high or low the salary cap should be, what punishments are appropriate for the latest financial misdemeanours.
Perhaps we occasionally allow ourselves to get too wrapped up in all this and forget what draws us to the game in the first place. The skills of the players, the ebb and flow of a tight game, the breakthrough try, the last ditch tackle, the win against the odds, the crucial penalty or field goal, the agony of defeat and the ecstacy of victory, the camaraderie of sharing it all with those around you in the stands or on the terraces, no matter how great or few in number.
My biggest fear is that whatever happens on the pitch this season, it will be overshadowed by the inevitable arguments that will follow the announcement of the latest batch of three-year Super League licences, and the even more inevitable accusations that the process has not been fair, whoever wins or loses. My hope is that, in the absence of interest from WikiLeaks to provide us with chapter and verse on what is really happening behind the scenes, the RFL will go out of its way to make the whole process open and transparent anyway. The tumultuous events at (Celtic) Crusaders since their elevation to Super League in the last round of licence applications has proved beyond doubt that taking a punt and hoping for the best harms those who are supposed to be the ‘winners’ in the process, as well as alienating those who lose out.
Finally, I hope that you will all continue to support Rugby League World by buying a regular copy each month. Our next issue is out on 4th Feb and features our big club-by-club Super League season preview.
Don’t miss it!
John Drake, Editor
This article was first published in Rugby League World – Issue 358 (Feb 2011). You can subscribe to future issues here.