Thursday, 3 October 2013

On National Poetry Day and the Burgesses

It's National Poetry Day today, so in the time-honoured* fashion....

If Steve McNamara did truly
Want the World Cup then he, cruelly,
Shouldn't have overlooked Luke,
And to rule out a fluke,
He probably should have picked Julie.

* - not even slightly

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

On Peter Gentle leaving Hull FC

Do not go Gentle into that good night,
Old players burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the black and white.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their players broke no defence they
Do not go Gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced on a green sward,
Rage, rage against the dying of the black and white.

Wild men caught offside and ran in fright,
And learn, too late, they ballsed up on its way,
Do not go Gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like O'Meley and Richard Gay,   
Rage, rage against the dying of the black and white.

And you, dear head coach, forlorn on the sideline,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go Gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the black and white.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Top 4

1. Positions one to four, inclusive, on the league ladder.

2. Whoever offers most money.

NB. It's very easy to confuse these two definitions.

Friday, 10 May 2013


Tomorrow, L'Equipe magazine's front page looks like this:

For those not versed in French, it says: "Dirty Story. How, during the Occupation, French rugby league was removed by the Vichy government, to the great benefit of it's 15-a-side cousin". The scrap of paper pictured is the decree from the secretary of state for education dissolving rugby league as of December 20, 1940, and all assets to be transferred to the ministry.

Now, anyone who has been around rugby league for a time will know this. If not, Mike Rylance's Forbidden Game is essential reading. In summary, the decree from above during the occupation of France was to the extent that professional sport was "incompatible" with the society Marshal Petain's government was trying to create. As such, rugby league and, bizarrely, badminton were banned. Professional cycling and boxing continued though, all of which makes the move look like a collaborationalist land-grab by the rugby union to stop the huge popularity of the fledgling 13-a-side game in it's tracks and reassert the authority that the upstart code was beginning to undermine.

After the war, the ban was overturned, but the seized assets were never returned - still haven't been - and, despite a 1950s surge in popularity, the momentum lost in establishing rugby league was a body-blow the game has always been struggling to recover from. Indeed, the sport was barred from using the word 'rugby' in it's name until the 1990s.

Ancient history then, yes? Well yes, but it's never really been addressed in France. There was an apology from government when the bar on the word 'rugby' was lifted, but that's it. The major media outlets - largely Paris-based, far from rugby league's south-western stronghold - have never covered it before, which is why this feels like a pretty big deal.

We wait to see what the body of the article throws up and whether it has anything new, over and above that which Rylance described in his book. Even if it doesn't, there's a sense that it's no longer sport's dark secret, that it's out in the open and a light can be shone on those responsible for this shameful chapter. I don't expect redress, nice though that would be, but an ability for those on both sides of the divide to talk about it openly and recognise the nefarious dealings that led to the ban would be a nice step forward.


While we're here, the other story trailed on the front page, that of NBA star Jason Collins coming out, is also interesting. Rugby league often trumpets it's inclusivity - justifiably so, a lot of the time - but it's a long time since Ian Roberts. Do we have an issue we need to talk about in this regard?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Koukash makes a splash

A pivotal moment came in English football late in 1992. Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson phoned his opposite number at Manchester United, a chap going by the name of Alex Ferguson who you might have heard of, about the availibility of Denis Irwin. He wasn't available, but while he had Wilkinson on the line, Ferguson asked whether Leeds were prepared to sell a certain Frenchman. To the surprise of everyone, £1.2m changed hands, Eric Cantona left the then champions and moved across the Pennines where he played a pivotal role in making Manchester United the most successful club of the modern era, indeed in English history.

The moral of that story is that if you don't ask, you don't get. Wilkinson asked but didn't get. No harm in that. Ferguson chanced his arm, hit the jackpot and the story has gone down as one of the most important moments in the recent history of the sport.

Now enter stage left Dr Marwan Koukash. The new Salford owner has been making waves with some inquiries for players. First it was Adrian Morley, then Rangi Chase and Sam Tomkins. Nothing wrong with that. Each of those players would improve Salford on the field of play. Approaches were made through the player's current club in each case - no hints of tapping up here - and, sadly for Salford, rejected each time. With Graham Lowe now on board as sporting director, the chase for high-profile players looks set to continue with Todd Carney among the names mentioned.

This appears to have put some noses out of joint. The general reaction seems to have been along the lines of 'who is he kidding?' at best and 'who does he think he is?' at worst. You see, Koukash is an outsider and Salford a club that haven't troubled the services of trophy-engravers for quite some time and therefore any attempt to improve the lot of the club should be regarded as foolhardy, futile and not worth the effort. This is rugby league you see, a game Dr Koukash clearly doesn't understand and one where optimism and positivity are banned.

The long-suffering Salford fans - routinely among the best this writer has spent time with in terms of humour, noise and healthy cynicism - need a boost. While for many it's enough just the the club survived and have an enthusiastic new owner, there aren't that many of them and making a bit of noise will help get them noticed, signal some ambition and maybe encourage someone to bob down and have a look at what's going on. It also gets the club, and indeed the sport, mentioned across the media. Fortuitously - maybe by design - Koukash finds a big chunk of the media on his doorstep following the BBC's move to Salford Quays. If he can't generate headlines there, then he probably never will.

Of course, what has to happen soon is for one of these players to actually turn up, like what they see and sign on the dotted line. That's Lowe's task and whether he pulls it off or not will decide whether the gripers and moaners are right and Dr Koukash is a publicity-seeking chancer or whether Salford can begin to be a force again, on the field and off it.

For now, it's good to see Salford in the papers for the right reasons after a trying period. It might be nice if more clubs could generate their own publicity as well. Nobody is just going to give you players, same as they won't simply hand column inches over to you either. If they keep asking, Salford could easily end up with both.

Cummings going

So farewell then Stuart Cummings. After 13 years - it really doesn't feel that long - he's stepping down as the RFL's controller of match officials.

As with any job, he's had challenges and successes. The big success has been to oversee the move to full-time professional referees, the biggest change in officiating the game since the limited tackle rule was introduced. Never before have our referees been better prepared, and yet never before has the level of opprobrium dished out to officials seemed to be higher.

Frankly, refereeing a modern game of rugby league is an impossible job and, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the whole codification needs a thorough going over. For starters, there needs to be a one body responsible for setting down the rules and those rules should be played the world over, not picked at like some sort of rule buffet. Only then will we stand a chance of a coherent framework for the future. It's sheer lunacy that the two major leagues in the world play to an increasingly different rulebook and the ugly compromise that dwells under the banner 'international rules' should never need to come about. At this stage, it's not important what the rules are so long as there's one set and everyone plays to them. Then comes the challenge of making them 'right'.

The USP of rugby league ought to be it's simplicity, but the current code is so nuanced and contains so many areas open to interpretation that inconsistency is built in to the system and it's that inconsistency that so angers fans, fans not normally slow in reaching for the bumper book of conspiracy theories. Have in mind what you want the end product to look like. Then take a blank sheet of paper, write on it "six tackles then hand over, 4 for a try, 2 for a goal, 1 for a drop-goal" and go from there. Anything with more than two clauses should be discarded. Anything requiring a clarifying footnote should be dismissed. Make it black and white and get referees to police those rules and not coach players through games. I refuse to believe that it's that hard.

Every major sport has one set of rules with one body responsible for them except rugby league. Until that situation is rectified, whoever is in charge of match officials will find progress difficult to make.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Have you heard? The rugby is back

The first week of February seems an odd time to launch a summer game, especially when the last knockings of the previous season was only two-and-a-bit months ago, so it's understandable that the new rugby league season launch has been so low key.

Neither Super League nor the Championship will begin the season with a sponsor and, perhaps without the need of someone expecting something for their money and pushing for it, the launch for the former barely made a ripple while if there has been an official launch for the latter, it's failed to make an impression round these parts.

The two broadcast partners of the RFL both came up with items pertaining to the sport. Sky's promo is an exquisitly crafted item starring celebrity fan Bradley Wiggins and is understated in a way that the sport is often not associated with - often the desire for attention comes across as screechy and pleading. The BBC went with an edition of Inside Out, the series that takes a deeper look at local news stories, highlighting the levels of debt carried by Super League clubs. Now this has not gone down well with the stereotypically chippy fans of the sport. A totally unscientific trawl through messageboards and twitter throws up suggestions of conspiracy on behalf of the Corporation, almost inevitably with the invisible hand of that other handling code also blamed.

Now, given that last season was dominated by the financial woes at Bradford and the off-season by the financial woes at Salford, are we really surprised that there is a germane debate to be had? One of the criticisms in the programme was that of the subtle but important change to the salary cap rule which withdrew the "or 50% of turnover, whichever is the lower" clause. As a consequence, the claim was made, the cash limit has become seen as a target rather than a limit and clubs have over-reached while spending up to that limit. There are questions on that point alone that the RFL and the member clubs need to answer.

As for the timing, these things take time to put together and schedule. Also, when better to schedule it when the sport should be in the public consciousness? That this programme with it's critical gaze got more traction in the mainstream media was, in part at least due to the lack of anything else to talk about. And if anyone thinks this is a serious attempt to undermine the 13-man game at the expense of the 15-a-side code, then you'd be better having a word with the silly arse who scheduled the opening weekend to coincide with rugby union's northern hemisphere jamboree of tedium.

But the main gripe with the low-key nature of the season launch is nothing to do with Sky's promo, Inside Out's report or all the other things - Six Nations, Superbowl and football's transfer window closing for three examples - that are competing for attention this coming weekend. It's the nature of the Super League structure. There's no jeopardy to these early games, barely any in the first half of the season, really. It's been noticeable that there hasn't been so many pre-season trial games this year as in the past - partly to do with the ludicrously short off-season which seems to shrink further year-on-year - and that, I postulate, is that your actual pre-season consists of the first half-dozen weeks of the season proper. Nobody wants to be playing their best rugby in February (except perhaps Huddersfield, but hopefully a change of coach will remedy that for them in 2013) or even May, really. As Leeds have consistently proved, it doesn't matter.

More than half the clubs in the competition will make the finals and, by definition, at least one is going to have a losing record in the 27 rounds that go before them, so losing a few before the clocks go forward is neither here nor there. Missing players now is immaterial; the Catalans will be without Scott Dureau for an indeterminate period of time, but as long as he's got some football in his legs by the time mid-summer comes around, it's no real drama.

It feels to this seasoned watcher of the game that it doesn't matter. And if that's how someone who has been close to the game for more years than he cares to remember feels, how are we supposed to enthuse new and/or casual viewers to it? Indeed, were it not for Inside Out, would anyone even notice that it was all kicking off at all?