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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Rugby League Has Lost the Plot

Copyright National Rugby League 2013
Maybe it's just me, but I really think that the NRL is making a huge mistake in their weekend free of competition matches, and instead having some 'representative' matches playing instead, while the majority of players head off to relax or get over injuries or just (hopefully) stay out of trouble. If they are serious about trying to out-market and out-hype the other football codes in Australia, this is a really strange way to go about it.

Firstly - the Test match between Australia and New Zealand. I have probably watched one rugby league international match in the past six or seven years. Why? Because they just don't interest me as contests. Apart from these two nations and Great Britain, no other team in the world is competitive at this level. And the only reason New Zealand and Great Britain are competitive is because a) 90% of Kiwis and 20% of Poms play in the NRL and b) while other percentage of players play in England, their competition is made better because of the huge percentage of Australian players playing in it. So we see most of these players in the NRL week after week. Do we need to see them in a one-off Test match? What value is there in a one-off Test match? When I was growing up in the 80's and 90's, at least we had Test SERIES, where on the off chance that Australia would actually LOSE a Test match, we could be a chance to fight back and win the series. Then, around the Super League time, it was decided to play a Test on Anzac Day. Great idea, except that it soon struggled to draw a decent crowd, while the AFL's Collingwood vs Essendon matches draw 90,000 people MINIMUM each year. So now there is a Dragons vs Roosters Anzac Day clash and the Test is played a week earlier. No matter, because the Dragons/Roosters match will certainly draw more people to the ground than the Test will in Canberra. This being the case, why play it at all? It is becoming a white elephant, and deserves better than the 'poor cousin' status it currently receives.

Secondly - the City vs Country origin match. This game has been a dead duck for years, and should have been left off the itinerary when it was dumped some years ago. It is now irrelevant. Again, in the years up until the 1980's it was a true match between players in the NSWRL (City) and NSW Combined Country. Country even won a few, the last of those being 1975. However, once the best Country players moved to the city to play, and ended up playing against their former teammates, the matches became lopsided an uncompetitive. It also became less of a trial for the NSW side than a training run, and so its relevance dropped. Rules were tinkered with, allowing Country to "choose" five former Country players in their team, before becoming a full blown Place of Origin match. Still, the incentive to play well and win the game dwindled, especially once the Trans Tasman Test match began being played in April, BEFORE the start of the Origin series. Form in the City/Country game meant almost zero when it came to selecting the NSW Origin team, and in recent times players were selectively 'rested' from the match if they were 'assured' of Origin selection. So why play the game at all? From the two teams that were announced on Sunday evening, a ridiculous eleven personnel changes have already occurred, all to apparent injuries following medicals. Now, call me a cynic, but if club football was on this weekend, I would suggest that most if not all of those players who are unable to front for this game on Sunday would be playing for their Club. So if the clubs and players don't want it, and the spectators don't care about the result, why is it being played? And why is a weekend of league being lost to play it?

On Friday night the Test match, in theory the biggest match of the year as it is an International, is being played in Canberra, where they will hope to draw 20,000 people. On the same night, AFL premiers Sydney will take on three time recent Premiers Geelong at the SCG, where a capacity crowd will be in attendance. Is rugby league running to avoid the embarrassment of an AFL club game out-drawing an International rugby league match? They should be. And Sydney and Brisbane this weekend are rugby league free zones. Why is this sport's biggest marketplaces having ANY weekend without matches being played? It is just astounding that the NRL allowed this to happen.

Maybe there are still people out there who are looking forward to the Test on Friday, and the rep game on Sunday. Good luck to them. I remember when my enthusiasm for both games was at the same levels as other big games in all sports. But that was a long time ago, and I'm not sure I will ever return to those days. On Friday night I'll be watching the Swans play the Cats, and on Sunday I'll be watching the Mariners and the Wanderers in the A League soccer grand final. Both games from different codes have a greater pull than the rugby league games on offer, and to me this speaks volumes for how much this sport has fallen in recent years, and how much work needs to be put back into rugby league in order to get it back to where it once stood.
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