Written by John Davidson
You get the feeling that the next 12 months for English rugby league are make or break.
Not that the sport is dying – there will always be rugby league played in the UK, in some form or another. But after several years of struggle and decline, of off-field politics and Covid disruptions, a chance for growth and increased relevance is there.
Super League kicks off on Thursday, with St Helens facing Catalans, and for the first time ever will be live on free-to-air. Yes, rugby league has been free to watch on the BBC for eons, but only some matches in the Challenge Cup and occasional end-of-year internationals.
Now the main competition will be accessible to all on a Saturday timeslot. Combined with that is the regular Sky Sports TV coverage, along with radio commentaries on TalkSport and the BBC. It is insane that after more than 100 years people are still calling for exposure for rugby league in the UK, like it is a completely hidden and unknown commodity, but there is some hope that Channel 4’s spotlight can challenge stereotypes and convert new fans.
Adam Hills to present Channel 4’s Super League coverage @C4Sport #SuperLeague @adamhillscomedy #RFL #RugbyLeaguehttps://t.co/wzMA4hYBYz
— Everything Rugby League (@ERLEAGUE) February 7, 2022
The appointment of popular Aussie comedian Adam Hills, along with the likes of Kevin Sinfield and a female-friendly line-up, could do that. For too long the image of rugby league in the south of England, and generally outside of the M62, is that the game is only one for thuggish male types – thick northerners, the working class from industrial towns and villages, the flatcap and whippets image.
That stereotype is wrong and needs to be challenged.
You only need to take a look across the sport to see how inclusive and diverse it really is.
Different nationalities, religions, races, heritages and backgrounds are all represented in Super League, along with different regions of the UK. There are offshoots tailored for women, those in wheelchairs as well as those with physical and learning disabilities.
But free-to-air TV coverage cannot do it alone, cannot do all the heavy lifting. All sections of the sport, from the professional game down to amateur levels, need to work harder and smarter to increase ratings, crowds and grow fanbases.
Improving stadium facilities, and the matchday experience, is one component. Improving participation and the amount of rugby league played in schools is another. As is lifting the standard of the day-to-day discourse around the sport, promotional activity and overall fan engagement.
Bring. It. On 💪@Betfred #SuperLeague returns 10.2.2022 #BringItOn pic.twitter.com/AKlhB0iNcp
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) February 1, 2022
Some would say that what rugby league in England lacks – compared with, say Premier League football or the NRL (apart from massive financial resources) – is a soap opera around it. A narrative to hook more people in, to entice and excite them, to get them talking.
There are stories across Super League, as ever, but we need to be better at telling them.
St Helens’ amazing quest for a fourth title in a row, a feat never achieved in the competition before. Wigan’s rebuilding attempt and investment in local products. Leeds’ push to get back to the top, allied with the capture of Canberra Raider’s 2016 starting halves partnership.
Warrington’s bold new era under Daryl Powell. Castleford’s revamp with Lee Radford. Huddersfield’s challenge, backed by exciting new talent in Will Pryce. Hull KR’s entertainers, coached by Tony Smith, and Hull FC’s uncertain future with the under-pressure Brett Hodgson.
Wakefield’s bid to get out of the mire with Willie Poching, the same at Salford with new coach Paul Rowley. Across the pond there is Catalans’ own goal to make history by going one better than last year and winning their first grand final. And their neighbours Toulouse out for mere survival and avoiding the immediate drop back down, while battling their own vaccination issue.
🤝 Like Father, Like Son
🤔 A big year on the cards for @GiantsRL's @WillPryce_?
🏴 #EnglandRL pic.twitter.com/nmeIy4lA4o
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) February 9, 2022
There’s a plethora of new signings to get enthused about – Mitchell Pearce, Brodie Croft, Curtis Sironen, Cade Cust, Billy Magoulis, Kane Evans, Dylan Napa, David Fusitu’a, Will Hopoate, Kaide Ellis and more.
There is a load of young English talent that can excite – Mike Lewis, Pryce, Harry Newman, Lewis Dodd, Jack Welsby, Jason Qareqare, Phoenix Laulu Togaga’e, Matty Ashton and others, such as Frenchman Artur Morgue.
From coaching changes, relegation battles, title pushes and ongoing rivalries, there is plenty to sink our teeth into. Under pinning all that is the World Cup at the end of this year. Put back 12 months, this tournament will be the biggest World Cup ever held and have more mainstream TV and media coverage than ever before.
The World Cup has been marketed brilliantly by its organising team, and with the selection of venues and with the BBC’s backing, it is poised to be a commercial success.
The building blocks are there. Now we can only hope we take this free pass, like a player running at an edge at speed, and make the most of it.
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