Has he gone yet? By the time you read this, Kyle Eastmond may have officially announced that he is to become a rugby union player. Or he may not. Whatever Kyle’s actual decision about his future employment turns out to be, the earth will not tilt off its axis and Rugby League will not vanish up its own behind as a result. You could be forgiven for thinking such a cataclysm were likely, given the outpouring of anxiety and self-doubt that grips Rugby League whenever the ‘free gangway’ between the two rival rugby codes, which Rugby League fought so hard to establish in the first place, works in the opposite direction to the one we would all prefer.
Kyle Eastmond is a sportsman. That’s how he earns his living. Even for the very best talents, it is a relatively short career. Rather than condemn Kyle for considering what is after all, nothing more than an alternative job offer, we need to look at the reasons a player of his undoubted quality might think himself better off out of Rugby League.
Not that we need to look that hard, and it isn’t necessarily always about money. Even if it were, it’s unfair to brand our players as mercenaries for seeking a better pay packet, particularly in financially straightened times and in a sport like ours which was born out of a desire to see that players should be paid for their services.
At exactly the same time Super League was kicking off with a full round of games at a two-thirds empty Millennium Stadium, rugby union’s Six Nations international series was in full swing, playing to packed crowds and a besotted media.
Meanwhile, Kyle Eastmond was playing for St Helens in Cardiff in what turned out to be a thrilling 16-all draw, one of the standout games of the Magic Weekend. But apart from the people rattling round the inside of the stadium at the time, the few hundred thousand watching the game on Sky Sports and the readers of the Rugby League press on Monday morning, who knew or cared?
Contrast that with the manner in which a former Rugby League player like Chris Ashton has been transformed from ‘Chris Who?’ into a media darling in the space of the few dozen metres he ran to score what was by anyone’s standards a great try for England’s rugby union team at Twickenham and it becomes easier to see the appeal of the rival code to any ambitious Rugby League player.
So should we panic, throw our hands in the air and wail in despair while watching helplessly as the floodgates open? Or should we concentrate instead on further developing Rugby League into a sport that can provide its own opportunities for stardom on the national and international stage, which in turn ought to generate increased levels of public awareness and sponsorship?
I think the latter is the sensible option.
Let’s start with the Magic Weekend. If it is going to become a regular part of the annual calendar, and it seems that it is, then more bums on seats are needed. That, more than anything else, will dispel the ongoing criticism this particular event attracts each year and will also make it a far more enticing event for players to play in. At the moment, the numbers turning up are simply not good enough and no amount of self-congratulatory backslapping from the organisers can hide that.
We’ve seen a terrific World Club Challenge this season between Wigan and St George-Illawarra Dragons that showed off all that’s good about top class Rugby League. But it’s complacent to accept that an almost sold-out DW Stadium is a big enough stage for an event like this. It shouldn’t be. It needs the kind of imaginative thinking that led to Wigan kicking off the concept against Manly in 1987 to take it to a higher level now.
Then there’s the mid-season international. Anyone know for sure who England will play, or where or when? We can be certain of several things: it won’t be at an exciting venue like Old Trafford or Wembley, it won’t be sold out and hardly anyone outside Rugby League will notice or care. That has got to change.
It’s not all bad news. Rugby League has the Challenge Cup Final and the Super League Grand Final in its portfolio of events. These are a match for any other sporting event on the planet and we should cherish them and evangelise about them at every available opportunity.
However, the international stage is where it really matters, and Rugby League falls down badly here. The ambition of the 1990s that saw Great Britain take on Australia at Old Trafford for the very first time and which also saw the Kiwis gracing Wembley has sadly been lost somewhere along the line. The DW Stadium in Wigan, the Galpharm Stadium in Huddersfield, these are both fine venues in their own right, but they ought to be far too small and insignificant for our national team to play in.
Until our sport shakes off its current timidity and puts the national team back on the biggest stages and in the most iconic stadia the country has to offer, the rival code will inevitably look a more glamorous proposition.
We should not bemoan the existence of the ‘free gangway’. It has and will continue to cost our game some of its better players, but at the other end of the scale it is allowing people who once upon a time would never have dared to contemplate playing Rugby League for fear of the repercussions, the opportunity to do so. Not all of them will turn out to be world beaters, or even remain playing the game for any length of time, but they will at least have become aware of it. The wider Rugby League spreads its net like this, the more chance it has of filling a stadium like Wembley to watch England play. And if we’re ever bold enough to dare go back there, the more chance we have of convincing players like Kyle Eastmond to remain in Rugby League.
John Drake, Editor
(Page XIII: First published in Rugby League World, Issue 360)