Peter Smith: Off-field politics dominates as new season kicks off

Ralph Rimmer.
Ralph Rimmer.
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SPEAKING AT the launch of the new season, RFL interim chief executive Ralph Rimmer claimed that, last autumn, rugby league proved itself the best sport in the world.

Rimmer also said the finest talent in the world is here, in Betfred Super League. A little hyperbole is expected at such events, but they are big sentiments to live up to.

Barry Hearn.

Barry Hearn.

Those who four months ago believed rugby league is the greatest game probably still think that way and a competitive and entertaining World Cup may have created some converts.

But, realistically, everyone accepts the NRL is home to the sport’s best players and, though England pushed Australia all the way in the World Cup final, if anything, the gap is growing. The same problems and concerns exist now as at the end of last season.

In this country rugby league’s player base is too small and there is not enough money in the sport, though apparently eye-watering severence packages for departing chiefs are in the budget.

Those are issues the new permanent chief executive will have to face. It is typical of rugby league to be entering a new season without a full-time leader and with a power struggle developing behind the scenes. Also, the format for the 2019 season – which will obviously have a huge bearing on what there is to play for this year – has yet to be decided.

Nigel Wood.

Nigel Wood.

How many teams will be in Super League? Will the eights system continue? Is automatic promotion or relegation set to return?

Nobody knows.

Since Nigel Wood stepped down as RFL chief, there has been a clamour for Barry and Eddie Hearn – of promoters Matchroom Sport – to take over the running of the game.

Under Barry Hearn, darts – a sport with many parallels to rugby league in terms of its image and audience – has soared to incredible heights.

Could the same be done for rugby league? Dealing with clubs would be a different kettle of fish, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if Matchroom were to take over the promotion of a tournament or event, such as the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup or Dacia Magic Weekend.

Both have gone stale. The Magic Weekend was Wood’s baby and with him gone, its days might be numbered.

The event has not grown significantly since it was introduced in 2007 and it adds to an already crowded fixture schedule.

Unless a way can be found to attract bigger crowds – after 10 years it should be selling out venues like St James’s Park – its future must be in doubt.

If Magic was scrapped, that would allow space in the calendar for the Challenge Cup final to revert to its traditional spring slot, with the opening round played in pre- or early-season – a move which would be widely welcomed.

In terms of format, a return to 14 clubs may happen, but the fear is the European game does not have enough quality players to sustain two extra top-flight teams. There are merits to the eights system, particularly the Qualifiers which has been a real shot in the arm for part-time Championship clubs like Featherstone Rovers, Batley Bulldogs and Halifax, who have had something positive to aim for and benefit from late-season games against Super League opposition.

But after three seasons, Leeds Rhinos have won Super League twice and Wigan Warriors once, while Leigh Centurions have replaced Hull KR in Super League, then the positions were immediately reversed.

In 123 years, rugby league still hasn’t found a format it is happy with, so whoever takes over the running of the game is faced with no small challenge.

All that said – and despite new and old problems – here we are again at the start line of a new season.

Whatever the politics off the field, rugby league has managed to retain an incredibly loyal fan base, which cares passionately about the sport and on a weekly basis the players still deliver.

Leeds are in yet another transition, Castleford Tigers have things to prove even after their best-ever season, much is expected of St Helens, and Wakefield Trinity are genuine dark horses, so on the field the prospects are bright.

Chris Chester.

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Wakefield Trinity forward, Keegan Hirst. PIC: Paul Butterfield

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