Peter Smith: High time the sport cleaned up its image

Joel Tomkins.
Joel Tomkins.
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THERE’S AN old saying about there being no such thing as bad publicity, but that’s not true.

Rugby league has had more than its usual share of coverage over the past few days, most of it negative. The big talking point was the incident involving Wigan Warriors brothers Sam and Joel Tomkins.

Sam Tomkins.

Sam Tomkins.

Mobile phone footage emerged over the weekend of Joel abusing and man-handling staff at a pub in the Wigan area. Sam was present, but features in the video as little more than a bystander.

It doesn’t make pleasant viewing and, after it emerged on social media over the weekend, it was picked up by the national press. Predictably, that has led to accusations the media are prejudiced against rugby league and only interested in the sport when there’s something controversial to report.

Anyone who thinks film of two high-profile players – one a dual-code international and the other formerly the biggest name in the European game – acting like that in public isn’t going to attract national attention is kidding themselves.

The incident apparently took place more than a month ago, but only came to light after Wigan’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat at Warrington Wolves. It was not what the code wanted or needed, particularly on the heels of well-publicised incidents such as various doping suspensions and more bad behaviour on a night out involving Hull’s Albert Kelly.

Albert Kelly.

Albert Kelly.

Player behaviour on and off the field is coming under the spotlight and rugby league as a sport – and the individuals concerned – has to learn to adapt to that.

Hull made little public comment about the Kelly incident, saying it had been dealt with internally. Wigan took a different approach, issuing a strongly-worded statement in which executive director Kris Radlinski said he was “disgusted” by the players’ actions. That has drawn more attention to the video, which has been discussed on national television and radio, but was the right thing to do. Sam was fined £5,000 and Joel dropped for four weeks and fined £10,000. Radlinski pointed out the pair are role models not only for youngsters in the town, but also other players at the club and they represent Wigan – and therefore rugby league – both on and off the field.

To his credit, Joel has apologised – on social media and to the individuals involved – and seems genuinely contrite.

This sort of thing isn’t a new occurrence, it has been going on for probably as long as the game has been around – and certainly since young men were paid good money to play it.

Talk to any former players over the age of 50 and all manner of hair-raising drunken incidents will be revealed, though clashes with young women serving in bars or fast food places isn’t usually a theme.

What is different now is that virtually everybody carries a mini-video camera in their pocket at all times.

It is a shame bad behaviour gets highlighted and the outstanding community and charity work done by many players tends not to, but that’s just how things are.

Everyone does things they regret at times and rugby league players don’t behave any worse than other people of their age, or anyone else for that matter, but being constantly monitored is one of the downsides of the job.

Education is obviously part of the solution and many clubs do good work underlining the responsibilities of being a professional player and the risks of drunkenness in public places.

Behaviour on the field has also been an issue recently, particularly in Challenge Cup ties involving Betfred Championship teams against Super League sides.

There was one red card and six yellows in Hull’s win at Featherstone Rovers, a sending-off and three sin-binnings for Toronto Wolfpack when they lost at Warrington and two dismissals and two sin-binnings during Leeds Rhinos’ win over Leigh. Scuffling doesn’t look good on television, but abuse of match officials is worse. There are signs the sport is waking up to that and starting to clampdown, which can only be a good thing.