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?

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