Way back in November rugby league was on something of a high. Sam Burgess’s return to the sport was big news and an outstanding Grand Final had brought the curtain down on an excellent season.
When England pulled off a shock by beating the world’s top team, New Zealand, to record their first Test series triumph for eight years, people were talking – positively for a change – about the sport.
The moment the final hooter sounded on the third Test at Wigan was the perfect time to announce venues – and put tickets on sale – for this year’s international showpiece.
But then we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, tomorrow – half a year before the competition begins – the dates and venues will finally be confirmed.
Six months is plenty of time to sell tickets and whip up interest, but those charged with doing that will have to start from scratch. It’s a typical rugby league case of an opportunity being missed.
In fact, as of today we have the bizarre situation of knowing – or having a pretty good idea about – when and where the opening game of the 2017 World Cup will be held, but not this year’s internationals.
If you fancy going, Melbourne on the evening of the Melbourne Cup is apparently the place to be for England against Australia.
Rumours of Four Nations venues have been swirling for some time, without confirmation.
Coventry is set to stage a double-header and the sport will probably return to the Olympic Stadium, with Anfield also hosting.
On the positive side, there are indications the BBC are beginning to take rugby league more seriously.
Pressure from MPs and the quarter of a million votes for Kevin Sinfield in last year’s Sports Personality of the Year poll may have helped and it was a coup by the RFL to obtain live coverage of today’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup sixth round draw on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, one of the country’s most influential broadcasts.
This being rugby league, not everybody approved, but it was an indication the sport is being taken more seriously by the national broadcaster, which is something the code has long craved.
Certainly it should be an improvement on the Richard Bacon fiasco of a couple of years ago. That’s assuming it goes ahead – as world events do have a strange habit of disrupting Challenge Cup draws.
The Challenge Cup had new life breathed into it when last weekend’s fifth round produced two remarkable upsets.
Oldham’s win at Hull KR was possibly the biggest shock of the summer era and Toulouse beating Leigh was not too far behind. There was also a thoroughly entertaining derby between Batley and Featherstone, which was broadcast live on Sky Sports.
Mount Pleasant looked fine in the sunshine, a four-figure crowd turned up and while Rovers under-performed, Batley played some exciting rugby, particularly in a spell when they scored four successive tries.
There were some good players on show, who aren’t well known to neutral fans – for example Batley’s James Brown – formerly of Leeds amateurs Queens – and James Harrison, son of Karl.
Now what the RFL needs to do is persuade Sky to start using their rights to show games from the Kingstone Press Championship. They did that, on Thursday evenings, for a while and the option was briefly taken up by Premier Sports when Sky backed out, though that ended after the most recent broadcast deal.
The Championship is an excellent competition, which produces thrilling rugby and close results and televised games tend to draw the crowds, rather than deter them which sometimes happens in Super League. Sky are missing out by not showing any lower division rugby – apart from the Summer Bash – before the competitions split after 23 rounds. It would make excellent Saturday afternoon viewing, particularly in the football off-season and might give league fans a little more incentive to put up with Sky’s latest price hike.