And so, this weekend, we reach the close of a cracking England v New Zealand semi is being regarded in some quarters as possibly the best match of Rugby League in living memory, and even without that (ultimately bitter) cherry on top, it’s been an astonishingly entertaining tournament, my personal favourite being the 30-all tie between Scotland and Italy.Cup. Last week’s
But, never one to take the positive out of something when there is a nice bottle of negativity sauce to put on the chips on my shoulder, I won’t be reflecting on a tournament well held. Sure, it’s been a great sporting spectacle. Sure, the attendances have been superb, even outside League heartlands. Sure, new fans have been won over to my favourite team sport. But there has been something sinister and unpleasant about this World Cup – the media coverage.
Now, this is something I’ve been bleating on about for the twenty-odd years I’ve followed League, but it bears repeating because nothing has changed. The media coverage doled out to Rugby League is an insult to a.) the skill of the guys on the pitch, b.) the intelligence of the people who watch, c.) anyone who expects their print and broadcasting organisations to provide them with a thorough and honest appraisal of the events of the day.
Union has the greater national profile. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Leaguer like me can see that. But that doesn’t nearly justify the gulf in coverage that persists. This has been Rugby League’s biggest month in half a decade, so what to we get?…
After the opening match, where England put up a spirited display against their nigh-unbeatable (for England) opponents, watched by a bumper crowd of 45,000 (in Wales no less), the Daily Telegraph provide but a half page report. This, the first RL World Cup in five years, received less and lower profile coverage than the day’s top Union club match, attended by only 10,000. Worse, the paper provided longer and more prominent coverage to mere speculation over selection for the England v Australia Union friendly. I tweeted the Telegraph about this. No response.
The BBC meanwhile has been disappointing beyond belief. In these days of red buttons and multiple digi channels, we ought to have the opportunity to watch the whole tournament on Auntie Beeb if we choose. The Beeb’s coverage has been sporadic, often radio only, and frequently tricky to pin down in advance without rummaging through obscure pages of their website. Coverage of the Autumn Union internationals have been trumpeted far and wide, even in between the types of programmes the sports fan is not likely to be watching. For the League World Cup on the other hand, aside from a CGI trailer (beefed up reconstructions of the fellas off the Money For Nothing vid rampaging through the Pennines) the BBC have done very little to promote one of British sport’s showpiece events. I tweeted the BBC about this. No response.
Some ITV News bulletins neglected even to mention the results of important matches. I tweeted ITV News about this…. you get the picture.
What’s the reason for it? It’s not the entertainment. There’s been cliffhangers aplenty in this tournament. It’s not the sport. Union players themselves will nod in respect at the athleticism and skill of League’s finest. It’s not even the popularity. Attendances were great. It is, and ever has been, because the boardrooms of our media organisations are staffed with old boys for whom Twickers, like Wimbledon, like the Boat Race, is a second home. It’s safe, it’s nice, it’s ‘pints of Bombadier all round, hurrah for our boys’. They don’t have to know their Featherstones from their Castlefords. They don’t need to know where the KC Stadium is. “It’s in Leeds, isn’t it, Carruthers? Maybe, Manchester? Oh, I bally well don’t know. One of those places poor people live.” And unfortunately, because they grew up playing for the 3rd XV on the fields of Eton, we, the unthinking masses, are force fed a diet heavy on Union with just a tiny side order of League.
Worse, the public, subjected to this, have got Stockholm Syndrome. We’ve begun to believe that Union is the rightful rugby. I’m constantly amazed by the people, even in the north, who talk of ‘rugby’ to mean ‘rugby union’ and ‘rugby league’ only as ‘rugby league’ as if it were some subspecies. I’m not going to get into a history lesson here (that’s for later) but the bias has been so long-lasting and so endemic that even on its good days (i.e. this world cup), League is treated merely as an entertaining upstart, rather than a sport with a proud 118 year history.
My advice to the sport is that it should take a leaf out of horse racing’s book and take its crown jewels off to a channel that cares – Channel 4 if possible. Motorcycling, darts, horse racing – these former mainstays of BBC sports scheduling have all been quitely sidelined and then hived off, dare I say for the same class-based prejudices cited above. Sometimes it has been to the sport’s benefit, sometimes not, but like it or no, Rugby League is going the same way, and needs an exit strategy.
The one saving grace in the BBC’s favour is that this tournament saw the final commentary by Ray French. A loveable old guy, sure enough, and one I’d happily buy a retirement pint for if he wanted to relive the glory days of Ellery Hanley and chums. But he was symptomatic of the image the Beeb in its wisdom wanted to pin on the game. Hired way back when for being the closest they could find to Eddie Waring, the modern sport had long eclipsed him. Switching to the Beeb after watching the made-in-heaven paring of Eddie*-and-Stevo on Sky made it clear the contempt and lack of faith the BBC had in the game.
Rugby League has long needed to get its international house in order. Finally with this tournament it seems to be doing so. More regular World Cups in the coming years should allow it to build on this good start. I only hope the media plays ball.
*Hemmings, not Waring (God rest his soul)