Tuesday, 3 July 2012

State of Originally a Good Idea

Morning folks, no Tour today as I’m on a Mugabe Media Lockdown until I’ve downloaded and watched last night’s stage, and the Euro 2012 review will be coming later in the week. Instead we’ll be taking a look at some Australasian/Oceanian/Antipodean/Down Underean favourites, otherwise known as ‘Sports The English Invented But Rarely Are Still Able To Win’. Specifically today, we’re looking at Rugby League, and with the deciding Origin encounter less than thirty-six hours away there are a couple of questions to ask about which direction the sport should be heading in.

State of Originally a Good Idea

Now I should throw out an early caveat here: Korea is not exactly a hot-bed of Rugby League passion, and five years here have meant that my finger is about as far away from the pulse as a proctologist’s. I still watch the Warriors when I can, and could probably name a starting thirteen for them, but I have only vague notions of who plays for whom as regards to the other NRL clubs these days. So you might be able to imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Queensland had somehow conspired to win State of Origin five years running. Five freaking years in a row: how the hell does that happen???
 I was a huge ‘leaguey’ (sp?) as a young teen, and Origin was always the pinnacle of every season but, from memory at least, it was seen as pretty special if either side could win two years in a row. So as a Blues supporter, but I think just generally for the health of the competition, a NSW win in Brisbane tomorrow night is crucial, though I’m sure most Queenslanders would hotly dispute that. But seeing as I have little familiarity with the players and teams, I’m not really in a position to preview the match itself. Today’s musings are instead inspired by this Benji Marshall article I came across last weekend.
 For those who are unfamiliar with it, there seems to be some controversy going on in League circles about young Kiwis being lured into playing Origin by big paydays, and thereby making themselves ineligible to play for NZ. Unsurprisingly given he is the Kiwi captain, Marshall is both disappointed and angered by this, although his argument is somewhat undermined when he states that he played for Australia at the youth level “out of spite, not because of money.” His sentiments aside, for me the situation raises larger questions for the game in terms of international credibility, which is something several other largely Commonwealth based sports also struggle with.
 I think a decent measure of a sport’s ability to claim that it is truly an international competition can be judged by its World Cup. If there are more than five sides who can believably claim to have a real chance at winning the Cup, then you have international credibility. To be honest, I think a number as small as five is being a little generous, but it is at least a reasonable jumping off point for this debate. If we look at the other major team sports played in the Commonwealth- rugby, cricket, and netball- we see League has a pretty tenuous position (football and hockey get a pass from this- football for very obvious reasons, and hockey due to it being pretty firmly established throughout Asia and Europe.)  
 With both rugby and cricket you can make a decent case for at least five sides having a realistic chance to win the next World Cup. Certainly only four sides have won the Rugby World Cup in the seven editions of the tournament to date, but you probably have to include France in the list as they have made two finals, and Wales could conceivably pull off enough upsets to also win the thing. Cricket has had five different winners in ten Cups, and England have been runners-up three times, NZ has made the semis six times (yep six failures to reach the final I hear you ‘where is the top half of my glass-ists’ cry), and South Africa will surely triumph sooner or later. So while neither of these sporting codes are global behemoths, they at least have some basis for claiming to be credible as an international game.
 Rugby League and netball have no such believability. The League World Cup has always been a mismanaged farce (remember Sydney-presents-Lebanon in 2000?), with only three sides who have any chance of winning the competition. Netball is even worse off, with a Trans-Tasman showdown almost guaranteed to be the final of any major tournament. Now this is definitely not meant as a criticism of these sports in terms of viewing entertainment or participant's enjoyment. Without wanting to get into the tiresome debate of Rugby vs League, you can at least say that even the most ardent rugby fan would have to admit that the ball is actually in play in League for far longer than in Rugby. League players are huge, immensely fit athletes, and there are no obviously discernible reasons why rugby is more widely played and watched. As a personal anecdote, when I was a young fella at school, during lunchtime we would never play rugby, and always play league simply due to the wonderful simplicity of the game. You can’t have hordes of school kids playing rugby unsupervised because who is going to pack down the scrums or officiate on the rucks? With league, you simply have a much more accessible game.
 Also on a personal level, one of my favourite activities as an eleven and twelve year old was going to Northland Community Centre one night a week for ‘Multisport’. For a sports crazed individual like myself, this was utopia: every week I was introduced to a new game. Orienteering and lawn bowls are fondly recollected, but the two codes that stand out strongest in my memory as being incredibly fun to play are handball (why this sport has been unable to replicate the passion that it entails within Europe in other parts of the world is truly beyond me) and netball. Netball is fast (arguably), requires awesome skill and fitness, plenty of scoring, and has specialised positional play: all the factors that make a team sport great. So why does it have such limited international appeal? Men, that’s why. We’ve screwed the sport up in two different ways.
 Firstly, on an historical level. Netball was created in the late 19th-early 20th Century as a “socially appropriate” sport for women (sorry, I’m too lazy to quote sources, but ‘Wikipedia’ has a real bibliography if you care.) Basically this means that the rules reflected the patriarchal nature of society at the time: women are delicate flowers and shouldn’t play a sport that is rough and tumble. Hence the massively picky ‘contact’ rule that constantly disrupts the flow of the game, and lead one wag on twitter to dub the sport ‘Whistleball’. I hate the contact rule. If you look at the size, strength and all-round athletic ability of modern netball players, they do not need the over-protection that this law, based on extremely out-dated notions of feminine fragility, provides them. But the rule persists, and for me at least, makes the sport virtually unwatchable.
 And the second way that men have ruined the game is that we seem unwilling to support, at least in numbers large enough to make it internationally viable, a sport that we are more or less excluded from playing. It’s not as if the concept of a game that is played on a court with a round ball that you throw through a hoop cannot be an international phenomenon, but netball has been hamstrung from the start.
 But what about league? Why has it not taken off on the same level as rugby? It may surprise you to know that league has had an established World Cup since the 1950s. Yet still it struggles. In NZ it will always be dominated by rugby, whether in numbers of clubs, players, and funding, or media attention. In Australia it has to fight off AFL, rugby and football for punter’s dollars and time. And in England it is still unable to escape the stigma of being seen as a game for uncultured Northerners. Which all leads me in a very longwinded and roundabout way back to Benji Marshall’s article.
 League has some decisions to make. The Origin concept is awesome, but needs to be updated. Player’s eligibility being dependent on which state you played your first representative match in is all well and good, but when it was conceptualised in the early 1980s it is unlikely that it was envisioned that scores of Kiwis would soon be amongst the possible participants. Thirty years later, allowing young Kiwis to be poached by Origin sides has real long-term repercussions for the sport. If you only have three credible international sides and the game’s administrators allow one of them to be weakened, particularly to the benefit of the country that is already the dominant force, then you might as well just give up on international competition. Which, in league’s case, might not be such a terrible thing, provided they have another concrete plan to sustain the sport. The sport’s power undoubtedly resides in Australia: the NRL is the best competition with the highest quality players, and the decisions made by the NRL powers-that-be will decide the fate of the sport. If they choose to prioritise Origin over internationals, then so be it. It is a very short-sighted stance, but one that is completely in keeping with the chaotic, fractious manner in which the game has been administered throughout its history. If the World Cup and Tri Nations competitions are to be undermined, then they need a Plan B for international interest.
 I would suggest something along the lines of an international club competition, maybe played biannually. At the moment the winning NRL club plays the winning Superleague club in a one-off match that has no relevance to anyone, largely due to the timing of the game. Instead, take the top four clubs from each comp and have them play some kind of month long tournament every couple of years. Yes, the scheduling will be tough, initially it will be expensive to  stage, there will be complaints aplenty from all corners and in general many hurdles to overcome: in short, it will need vision and courage from administrators to create this. Sadly, I have little confidence in those holding the reigns, and as such, rugby league’s international credibility will continue to fade away. Don’t get me wrong, I love league and am massively amped about the chance to watch the Origin decider tomorrow night. I just think more could be done to ensure the long-term international health of a sport that so many people are very passionate about.

 Enough rambling from me for today. Euro review and Tour later this week, and a preview (hopefully with some input from MMA aficionado Hard Times Molloy) of Saturday’s upcoming epic, UFC 148- Silva vs Sonnen. Take it easy.


  1. There are some other interesting aspects of the development of Union and League - in particular the class element. League was developed in the north of England as an option to working in the mines and players were paid.

    Even in NZ when I was growing up this was the case. League was professional and rugby (though this became more cynical over the years) was amateur. if a player switched to League he was automatically banned from union for life.

    Now, of course players are paid in both codes but it doesn't seem to have changed the catchments of the player base to any great extent. How many qualified lawyers (eg Conrad Smith) are playing league. Or indeed University students at any level? What suburbs are the club teams based in? It appears to me that the Wellington League competition is based largely in Porirua and Upper Hutt. What major schools have league teams? South Auckland appears to be the home base of the Warriors.

    And the ever increasing payments made to union players are drawing more and more players from the original league base into union. This leads to an increasing disinterest in the sport.

    Cricket ultimately got it right by ridding itself of the gentlemen and Players distinction. For that to have happened in Rugby both union and League would have had had to work together.

    That didn't happen and I suspect it's far too late. The future of League seems to be regional (like AFL) rather than international.


  2. The best thing about not having any daughters is knowing I will never have to stand on the side of a netball court, be roped into coaching/helping out on the side of a netball court or attend higher level games with daughters as spectators at a netball stadium.