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.