Peter Smith: 20 years since the switch to summer rugby league

Dean Bell was in charge of Leeds in 1996 for the switch to summer rugby.
Dean Bell was in charge of Leeds in 1996 for the switch to summer rugby.
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TWENTY YEARS ago, tomorrow, a young, fresh-faced reporter – bursting with ideas and enthusiasm – walked into the Yorkshire Evening Post offices for the first time, determined to make a mark on the paper and the area’s sporting scene.

No idea what happened to him, he didn’t last long, but this writer started on the same day and what a time it has been to cover the fortunes of West Yorkshire’s professional rugby league teams.

Things have changed considerably, both in the sport and journalism, since summer rugby officially began at the end of March, 1996.

Then, the game was just getting to grips with its transformation from part-time to full-time professionalism. Leeds, not yet Rhinos, in particular were reluctant to embrace the new era, but the takeover by Paul Caddick and Gary Hetherington at the end of 1996 brought a fresh approach and financial injection which, eventually, led to the greatest era in the club’s history.

In 1996 there were eight professional clubs in the YEP’s circulation area. One of those, Bramley, bit the dust in 1999, and the others have enjoyed ups and downs. All of them have reached – and won – at least one significant final, most have been relegated, promoted or both.

In March, 1996, Dean Bell was Leeds’ coach. John Joyner was in charge of Castleford and Mitch Brennan was at Wakefield, then a second-tier team. Other coaches were Neil Kelly at Dewsbury, Steve Ferres (Hunslet), Jeff Grayshon (Batley) and David Ward (Featherstone Rovers).

Leeds were teetering on the brink, on and off the field. Starved of cash, the side were in danger of relegation, won only six matches all year and finished third from bottom in Super League, above only Oldham and Paris. Bell had a bottle of Champagne on ice which he planned to drink when his team won two successive games. It stayed unopened all year.

Despite the obvious problems, Bell was good to deal with, as most coaches – at all clubs – have been. Generally, with one or two notable exceptions, they have realised the value of publicity, both to their club and the sport as a whole.

Talking to players is one of the best aspects of reporting on rugby league. Almost to a man they are thoughtful, helpful and decent individuals, without any of the ego issues encountered in some other sports. Over 20 years there have probably been less than 10 occasions when a player has refused an interview, even after the most embarrassing of defeats.

The players, as characters and athletes, are the sport’s greatest asset and the game in general should appreciate them more than it does.

In terms of reporting on rugby league, the job has got harder over the past two decades, certainly at Super League level. Clubs and the governing body want more control than they did in the winter era. Post-match press conferences and mixed zones have replaced dressing room access and Twitter and the internet are used now instead of releases to the media.

In some notable cases, the media – particularly local reporters – are regarded as competition for a club’s website, rather than a way of creating and spreading interest.

In 1996 most games were played on Sunday afternoons, at 3pm. Now Thursday and Friday evenings, at 8pm are the norm. That has changed the nature of match reporting, as deadlines are immediately on – or in some cases before – the final whistle. Advances in technology have expanded the role, so now reporters often file separate reports for websites and newspapers and provide Twitter updates as well as recording audio and taking video. Circulations may have declined, but audiences are more widespread.

Twenty years ago the only abuse came from West Yorkshire-based supporters, now it’s Wigan fans as well!

Still, it has been a fascinating 20 years and a privilege to meet so many interesting – and above all, decent – fans, players coaches and administrators.

Not enough people know it, but rugby league really is The Greatest Game.

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