Rugby League now faces a critical period with a new broadcast deal to be negotiated, a World Cup and question marks over the viability of the lower league clubs – many of whom have Conservative MPs for the first time in a generation.
Below are a collection of essays on the sport, its identity, the future and how we can make ourselves relevant again
Managed Decline: Will Labour and Rugby League break with their Heartlands?
It’s an inconvenient truth that Rugby League is at a major crossroads in its history. At the same time, the Labour Party must confront its traditional voters over Brexit. As League looks to new markets in Toronto, Boston and New York, Labour is increasingly reliant on its inner-city activist base to win the next election. Are they in danger of leaving their heartlands behind?
In 1945, the prospective Chancellor Hugh Dalton, confided to a friend that Labour could only ever win power ‘with the votes of the football crowds’. Dalton recognised that for working class people, the bond of the terrace and what that signified, was far stronger than political and ideological class consciousness. Since 1945, the ‘football crowds’ have rapidly changed demographically. As the average worker is priced out of attending top-flight games, clubs no longer represent a town, a workforce or a political class, but a large multinational corporation. Rugby League however remains deeply rooted within the culture of post-industrial towns. If Labour is to gain power at the next election, Jeremy Corbyn must keep and expand on ‘the votes of the rugby league crowds’ who still represent the party’s heartland.
Clive Sullivan: The Man Who Broke Rugby’s Racial Barrier
1972 was a tumultuous year in Britain’s history. The Heath Government faced down the unprecedented industrial and social conflict. The National Front was on the rise. Labour swung to the left and unemployment hit the fatal one million mark. Amidst the chaos, Great Britain RL appointed the first black captain of any British national side. It was done without mass protest or jubilant fanfare. For that reason, it remains unheard by the sporting public. James Oddy looks to rectify it with his epic tale of the Humberside legend Clive Sullivan.
Seize The Day: Twelve Ways To Make Rugby League Great Again
In the last ten years, Rugby League has failed to adapt to the ever-changing social, cultural, economic and media landscape. Some are ambivalent to this. The new chairman of the RFL, Ralph Rimmer, claims “the game is in a good place”. But that reeks of complacency. Over the next seven weeks, 8 top-tier sides will play 28 meaningless fixtures that could financially cripple the sport. We will then see two sets of teams play each other for the fourth time in 8 months in a half-empty stadium to decide who makes it to the Grand Final. The winner is then likely to come from Wigan or St Helens. It usually does.
Change is afoot though. After a decade in the wilderness, the Super League clubs have taken direct action. The appointment of Robert Elstone – the former Everton chief with impeccable League credentials – as their own Chief Executive, has the potential to revolutionise the game again. He has no time to waste in connecting the sport with a new generation of supporters. Here are twelve ways he could do it:
League’s False Dawn: Let Us Face The Future
As League embarks on another ‘New Beginning’ we have survived our Winter of Discontent in one piece. The settlement cannot be sustained. It’s time to Face the Future.
It is just 81 days since the curtain came down on the 2018 Rugby League season. The optimism generated from the successful England side – who enjoyed exposure on BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 2 and on the pages of The Spectator – gave League’s ‘expansionists’ hope for the future. As ever, the focus now turns to the club game for the next ten months.
Kudos to Robert Elstone, the Chief Executive of Super League, who has pitched this season as a ‘New Beginning’ for the sport. After just eight months in charge, Elstone believes he has made changes that will foster ‘the most exciting, the most competitive, the most unpredictable Super League ever’. Those who remember ‘Every Minute Matters’ and ‘The League of the Extraordinary’ will question whether the hyperbole is just another false dawn.
CodeBreakers: Toronto Wolfpack Understand Rugby League ‘Traditions’ More Than Most
Despite inevitable criticism from the ‘traditional’ Rugby League supporters, the Wolfpack’s lucrative capture of Sonny Bill Williams is in line with the sports ambitious and radical past
League’s Decline: Making Great Britain Great Again
On the morning of Saturday, October 24th1992, readers of the Daily Mirror turned to the sports pages to find an unusual lead story. Instead of a Football scandal or Cricketing collapse, readers were confronted with a striking publicity shot of Martin Offiah scorching past a hapless Australian defender with a blaze of fire trailing in his wake.
Under the headline ‘Wembley here we come: London’s Burning – Chariots on Fire’, the paper informed readers that the World Cup Final had arrived.
Offiah would ‘provide fireworks’ to audiences across the globe in ‘Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Europe’. Rugby League finally occupied the centre stage on the British sporting calendar.
Such headlines did not materialise out of thin air. League’s trajectory from the wilderness to the back pages was ten years in the making.
It was the end product of a series of bold decisions, the challenging of stereotypes, the manufacturing of narratives and, above all, a ruthless ambition by administrators to take the sport to new and bigger audiences.