This year’s annual report is sub-titled First and Foremost and throughout its 82 glossy pages it lists a series of British rugby league’s unique achievements – many of which the sport should be thoroughly proud of.
According to the report, rugby league is the first British sport to break into the Stonewall Champions and Workplace Index (2010), to have a black international coach (Ellery Hanley, 2004), to have a black international captain (Clive Sullivan in 1972) and to have a British Asian represent their country in any football code (Ikram Butt for England in 1995).
Those are milestones which nobody could object to and for which league, an all-inclusive game, should get more credit.
Also highlighted in the report are the moves to introduce video referees and technology (1996), to introduce a salary cap (1998) becoming the first football code to allow substitutes (1964) and the introduction of licences instead of annual promotion and relegation (2009).
Other firsts credited to the game include end-of-season play-offs and Grand Final (1907-1973, then reintroduced in 1998), the switch from winter to summer (1996), introduction of sin-bins (1982), a “matchday entertainment package” (Keighley Cougars in 1991), playing jerseys with an anti-homophobia message (Sheffield Eagles, 2011) and a themed round (State of Mind, 2011).
It’s thought-provoking, well-presented stuff and – along with a healthy balance sheet – an indication that the governing body is far more forward thinking and pro-active than many critics claim.
But it’s also ironic that the success of many of the “firsts” listed in the report are being questioned at exactly the time the document is published. If some in the game got their way, many of the “firsts” would not last.
In fact, the Watkins Review raises the possibility of rugby league also being the first British sport to scrap a licence system in favour of a return to automatic promotion and relegation.
Maurice Watkins is a leading sports lawyer and a former director of a football club who play at Old Trafford. He was appointed interim chairman of the RFL earlier this year after Richard Lewis stepped down.
His first ask was to look into how the game in this country is run and he has now unveiled a number of recommendations regarding the make-up of the RFL board, the role of the sport’s chairman, the way the Rugby League Council operates and so on.
The headline, though, is the 16th and final recommendation, which suggests an immediate review into: A, Competition structures and game integration; B, Super League licensing and promotion/relegation; C, Club sustainability and the appropriate level of RFL support for clubs; D, Youth development and player production systems and E, Expansion of the sport and RFL’s responsibility for European development.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the leading issues of concern to fans in the light of the Crusaders fiasco, Bradford Bulls’ financial problems, Widnes Vikings’ difficult return to the top division and the continued worries over the – supposed – lack of British talent coming through into Super League.
Licensing and expansion were two of the sport’s flagship policies under Lewis’ chairmanship and Watkins has been brave enough to say, hang on a minute, this might not be working, let’s have a look at it!
There’s a long way to go before relegation and promotion are back on the calendar. Watkins has simply recommended a review, he is not calling for licensing to be scrapped or for movement between Super League and the lower divisions to be reintroduced.
But he has at least recognised that this is a major issue and that a sport-wide debate can only be a good thing. In this writer’s view, the sport would win back some friends – but lost credibility – if promotion and relegation was reintroduced.
It is particularly a positive step for Featherstone Rovers, who have been the outstanding team outside Super League for the past two seasons and who are doing the same this year.
Daryl Powell has worked wonders on the playing side and good things are also being done off the field, by chief executive Craig Poskitt and his staff.
Rovers have an opportunity to slot the final piece into their jigsaw on Sunday when they take on Halifax in the Northern Rail Cup final at Blackpool. That trophy is the only silverware realistically open to them that Rovers have not lifted during Powell’s spell in charge.
It’s first versus second in the Co-op Championship, at an excellent venue and an opportunity to showcase how good lower division rugby has become.
Hopefully the game will not be decided on a controversial decision by the video referee. While the RFL still take great pride in their use of technology – something which illustrates how forward-thinking they are in comparison to certain other sports – they still haven’t found a way of eliminating human error.
The decision to rule out what would have been a winning try for Catalan Dragons against St Helens last week was one of the most controversial (some would say, worst) decisions made since the technology was introduced 16 years ago.
Video technology was introduced to eliminate obvious errors. It is not – as some of them seem to think – the job of the video referee to find ways of disallowing tries.
Other of the RFL’s “firsts” have been in the spotlight recently. This column last week highlighted the debate over the current play-offs system and whether it is right for a club to be crowned champions on the back of a few good performances in a season, Leeds Rhinos-style. There seem to be growing, misguided – in this writer’s view – calls for a return to first past the post.
Even the switch to summer – the key to a major expansion of the sport over the past decade or so – has not been universally welcomed.
It took a few years, but Super League clubs and those in the Co-op Championships have now bought into the idea. In the amateur game, however, there is greater resistance. Some clubs, having experienced four months or so of their new so-called summer season, are now calling for a switch back to winter.
Some of their concerns, over reduced bar receipts, player unavailability and so on, are understandable, but it might be wise to give the switch just a little more time.