Wednesday, July 26, 2006

So Who Gives a XXXX?

St Helens coach Daniel Anderson was in the media recently, having a little whinge at the Great Britain training days for robbing him of his best players in the build up to Super League games. Of course, how Great Britain perform on the international stage is of no concern to Anderson. He's a Kiwi after all even though he lives in the UK and works with some of the national side's leading players on a daily basis. But from a wider perspective, it seemed indicative of the attitude in this country towards representative games from those involved with clubs.

Wherever you stand, the fact remains that if GB are going to be successful in the Tri Nations later this year they need to be able to perform as a team, rather than just a collection of talented individuals. Every last advantage that can be gained in terms of preparation has to be taken, and that includes getting the squad together on a regular basis to train and play during the course of the season.

There has been talk of playing fixtures against a Rest of the World or Overseas XIII, but would those generate the necessary intensity? The opening exchanges of the recent XXXX Test were fierce, but would you still have got that if the Kiwis had been representing some artificial, created entity rather than their country? Regular games against the French have also been on the agenda, and their results in recent years against touring sides create a strong case for at least one game per season between the two countries.

Of course, space then has to be found in the calendar for these fixtures. And by space, I mean free weekends to allow adequate time for travel and preparation. Expecting players to represent their clubs on a Friday or Saturday then back up to play for their country on a Tuesday night after two training sessions just simply is not good enough. Timing also affects attendance. Midweek representative games don’t attract crowds, as witnessed by the turnout at St Helens, at Headingley for the game against New Zealand "A" a couple of years ago and the last "Origin" game at Odsal. Playing in big stadiums in big atmospheres is an integral part of the international learning experience.

This is where the potential expansion of Super League comes into the representative equation. An expanded league of 14 teams means 26 weekly rounds, two less than the current format. The two free weekends could then be used to play France, or with some co-operation from the NRL with the scheduling of their bye weeks possibly a Kiwi side with a full New Zealand Warriors contingent.

Following the announcement earlier this season of the clarified roles of Super League and the RFL in the organisation and running of the competition, perhaps it’s time the two got their heads together and discarded club self interest in favour of giving the international side a better chance to be successful? I’m sure no one will be forgiven however for not holding their breath.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Life is full of ups and downs

Yesterday's defeat by Bradford sees Wakefield Trinity Wildcats installed as hot favourites for relegation from Super League. They're leaking points, coachless (and with their perceived first choice of James Lowes stating that he doesn't want the job) and struggling to see where their next win is coming from.

According to departed coach Tony Smith, the players weren't fit enough. Perhaps he misunderstood what the meaning of the word "coach" entails, as you'd have thought it was his job to make sure they were. Or he's maybe just using "fit" as a euphemism for talented?

Of course, they're not the only Super League club standing on the edge of the cliff looking down. Wigan are edging away from the precipice with the help of Dave Whelan's emergency airlift, while the likes of Harlequins, Huddersfield and Castleford can't break out the sun loungers at training just yet. Catalan Dragons may still finish below all of them, but are of course exempt from relegation for their first three seasons. There's also the slim possibility that the National League One winners may decline or not be accepted for promotion, giving everyone a reprieve.

Should Wakefield fall through the trap door into the National Leagues, they may become victims of unfortunate timing. Relegation in any of the previous years would have seen them maintain a full-time squad in an attempt to romp through NL1 and win back their place in the elite on the field. The spectre of franchising hangs over any team relegated this season however, and there is a distinct possibility that on-field success in 2007 on its own would not be enough to get promotion.

Traditionalists, particularly those linked to clubs currently outside SL, have been gnashing and wailing at the prospect of "pulling up the drawbridge" and denying teams automatic promotion to the top flight. Without that, they argue, what is there to play for in the National Leagues? The counterpoint to that argument is the experience of promoted clubs, who have such a short turnaround between the NL1 Grand Final and the start of pre-season to try and recruit a side capable of competing and finishing at least second from bottom in Super League. Wouldn't it be easier for those clubs to have a year or two to plan for entry to the top flight as Catalan Dragons have had?

Rugby League is not football. The sport does not have 25-30 teams all capable of playing in the top division, the sort of market where on-field criteria can be the only way to judge who plays in the top division while still maintaining both on and off field standards. It is important as the flagship competition of the game that Super League is seen to be played in front of decent sized crowds in modern stadia with adequate facilities, rather than in front of 3,000 people in a ground with toilets like something out of a Dickensian novel. If clubs cannot deliver that, do they deserve to be in the competition simply because they won a one-off game in the autumn?

Franchising does not pull up the drawbridge. What it does is create a set of guidelines that all clubs with Super League ambitions will have to meet, both on and off the field, before they will be considered for entry. Those clubs who have genuine ambitions of making the elite will strive to meet those criteria, improving the experience for their own fans in the process - as Doncaster are already doing with their new lakeside development. Those clubs who wish to stay in the top flight must also strive to develop both new markets and improved facilities as in the case of Salford.

Tradition should be something to celebrate when you look over your shoulder, not a millstone to stop you going forward.

Friday, July 21, 2006

So here it is...

...Merry Christmas, everbody's having fun...

Sorry, got carried away a bit there. So here it is, my amateur hour attempt at a blog.

Why? Well, I guess I'm really a frustrated writer at heart, and this gives me somewhere to air my views, vent my spleen and get it all down on virtual paper. I've tried getting some of what I've written into print (with extremely limited success) and in the absence of any other takers I thought I'd put it out there on t'interweb for you good folks to read/agree with/laugh at/sue me for libel.

What? I'm a simple soul, as anyone who has tried to teach me anything will tell you. Nobody wants to hear me prattle on about the situation in the Middle East, or global warming, or reality TV. My life isn't interesting enough that I can stick a diary of it on here without depressing myself, never mind any poor sod who stumbles across it. So I thought I'd stick to something I like, and that I reckon I know about. Hence this'll be a blog about rugby league, the second most important thing to me behind family (but only just). It'll contain my musings/rantings/ramblings on the game in general, specific games and other miscellany as it enters my head and hopefully before it leaves it.

When? Whenever the muse strikes me, dammit. I'm not doing this for your benefit you know!

Who? By day, I'm a mild mannered civil servant from Leeds in his late 30's with a wife and two cats. By night, I'm pretty much the same bloke except on Saturdays when I'm Josephine, but more on that later - or maybe not.

So read on gentle viewer and prepare to be entertained/informed/bored witless...