Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The State of the Game - an apologists reply to DD

The 1991 Cup Final. Have we seen 21 years of decline?
Rugby League has always been a game that has prided itself on its ability to survive against the odds. From its inception in 1895, numerous people have predicted the imminent death of the sport. These are usually laughed off and have up until now been proven premature. The result is that few are taken too seriously anymore.

However, a recently released article touching on this very subject has caused ructions within the game's online communities. Perhaps most worryingly, it came from within the sport and from a lifelong Rugby League fan. The user calls himself 'DD' and is a prominent contributor to the Redvee.net fansite. Having recently turned 40, he decided now was the time to declare that he had fallen out of love with the game and he posted an incredibly detailed summary of what he feels has gone wrong with the sport. It has had almost 3,700 views at the time of writing.

There have been a mixture of reactions. Some, including prominent ex-player Garry Schofield have applauded it, tweeting, "outstanding piece. All RL fans should read." The support of such notorious RL personalities has led others to claim that DD is viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and that his falling out of love with the game is a result of his growing up. However, most fans would accept that he makes some valid points and that his opinion should not be ignored.

Upon reading it, I found it to be an incredibly cutting piece and one that really sticks the boot in to the modern game. This in itself is not wrong. As anyone who has ever read anything I have posted will tell you, I am no stranger to negativity. It is acceptable in my view as long as it is fair, truthful, realistic and is in some way constructive. I found DD's piece to be lacking in most of these areas. Therefore, I have decided to address the points of the article from my own perspective, as a continued fan that has followed the game closely for 20 years. It's probably worth pointing out that DD didn't intend his article to be constructive and openly states that the article is about:

Bemoaning the game and its associated experience having gone bland and not exciting me anymore!

Therefore, I am not necessarily going to disagree with many of the conclusions that DD makes. After all, if he doesn't find the game exciting, then that is his indisputable opinion. I will however, look at many of the reasons he gives as to why this has happened and evaluate whether he is being fair and whether he is looking at the facts objectively.

An apologists view on the DD article

If you have read the aforementioned article, then you will be aware that it is incredibly detailed and lengthy. As a result, rather than address each individual point, I will summarise and comment on his broader conclusions. DD split the article into 6 areas.

Summary - The game is only approximately 25% as good as it used to be. What was once an unpredictable sport that was full of variety is now a game that is boring, percentage-driven and predictable. This began with the change to the 10m defensive line in 1992. 

In this area, I think that DD makes some valid points and it's hard to find too much to disagree with. Whilst not accepting that the game is nearly as bad as he makes out, I would agree that the game isn't as good a spectacle as it once was and that it has changed considerably. He makes a decent analysis of the 10m rule and the effect that this has had on the structure of the game. However, what he fails to address, is the reasons for the 10m rule being brought in in the first place. For instance, in Australia improved defences had started to cancel each other out resulting in scorelines such as 4-2. DD even accepts that many of the issues he has in this area are down to improvements in coaching. Many fans would like a return to the 5m rule but the assumption that it would see a return to the old style of play is far from certain; it would need further extensive rule changes to fully work.

Despite these good points, it's hard not to see much of what DD says here as being viewed upon with rose-tinted glasses. Many of the experiences he speaks of, come from his late teens and early twenties and I have similar memories from that time. However, for me this was in the early noughties rather than the early nineties when apparently the rot was already well set in. It's inevitable that youthful enthusiasm, especially for visiting away stadiums, will wane as you get older and more experienced. As you travel more and the world gets smaller, the excitement of a trip across the Pennines is understandably lessened. He also negates to mention the increased crowds we see in Super League in comparison to when the game was apparently far more entertaining and certainly had far more exposure. There may be good reasons for this but you would expect him to address this if it was a fair piece. If the game was so good in the early 90's and it was on terrestrial TV every week, why wasn't it more popular?

I enjoy the modern game as an evolution of the previous one. The advent of modern professionalism has changed the game forever as different clubs have figured out more effective ways of playing the game. The game will undoubtedly evolve again, especially if criticism is increasingly aimed against it as a spectacle.

Summary - Under the old league system, every game used to matter whereas few do now. The sides not involved in the title race had the playoffs as a consolation; this resulted in greater variety of winners. The top 8 system is poorly thought out and the top 5 was much better. The removal of promotion and relegation has been a disaster for the sport. 

Personally, the league structure is a matter of preference. I prefer the Grand Final system and have ever since its inception. I suspect also that a majority of fans share my opinion. This doesn't come from a purely apologetic viewpoint either; I find the league system in Football boring. For every last-day title win there are probably 3 that are decided before then and after a third of the season it is usually down to 3 or 4 competing sides. Outside of Football, very few team sports follow the league model. The analysis of the previous playoff system is greatly flawed and it had declined considerably by its final year when 33,000 turned up to the final to see a Saints-Wigan derby. This followed a whopping crowd of 5,300 for the semi-final at St Helens against Oldham. This is not to say that he is not correct about the poorly thought out top-8 system, I think most fans would love a return to at least a top 6 playoff and I recorded an Audioboo on this very topic last year.

In this section we start to see something that is prevalent throughout the rest of the piece. We see scathing criticism of the way things are currently, without any real analysis of why those decisions were made or what the alternative was. For instance, he criticises the current licensing system in contrast to the promotion and relegation that we had from 1972 to 1994. However, he completely fails to acknowledge the introduction of Sky money in 1995 and subsequent advent of full-time professionalism. It is these events above all others that led to P&R becoming unsustainable. Football fails as an analogy here because the gap between the divisions is not so large. For it to be comparable, the Premier League clubs would drop from a full-time league averaging 35,000 to a part-time one averaging 7,000. We'd see how long they'd sustain P&R for in that circumstance.

Most RL fans, myself included, lament the demise of P&R and the aim should be to one day bring it back, although it looks unlikely in the near future. However, DD completely fails to point out what action should have been taken instead and ignores the reality that the lower divisions had already started to decline in comparison to the top division. Should the clubs have been forced to stay part-time? Should the RFL have rejected the Sky money?  Should they have kept P&R fully open and opened up strong clubs to ruin? This is where the article fails in my opinion. It's easy to criticise the fact that we have ended up where we are but there is no objectivity to it and little understanding that many of the critical decisions were made because things had already gone wrong. Too often the presumption is made that we could have carried on as things were, when this is far from the reality.

Summary: There is an inherent insecurity within the game that has led to the obsession with expansion. The game has been ashamed of its northernness and this has meant that we have consistently tried and failed to expand. In the process, we have neglected the heartlands of the sport and effectively lost many clubs and the juniors that they would have produced. Expansion is a waste of time in areas that already have established sports. Other sports such as GAA and AFL don't feel the need to expand in the same way.

The first section of this piece, came ironically just a couple of days after I had a Twitter discussion with Martyn Sadler about something similar. DD points out that the insecurity within the sport leads to a desire to shout how good our game is from the rooftops. I was commenting on fans doing this for the same reasons, after the State of Origin final game. I disagree however, that this is a major factor as to why the sport has tried to expand.

In the rest of the section DD creates a false dichotomy between expansion and looking after the heartlands of the sport and in the process again fails to account for huge changes within the sport and the wider sporting landscape. The section largely fails because it makes the incorrect presumption that things could have stayed the same, as if there have been no external pressures on the game, such as the growth of the Premier League. For instance, I find it almost incredible that he fails to mention the 100 year ban on Rugby Union players and the effect this had on the failed expansion attempts or the inevitable increased attempts since it was lifted in 1995. 

It is unreasonable to compare British Rugby League to the NFL, AFL or GAA and their lack of international games, when those sports are the national sports of their respective areas. This gives them benefits such as media coverage and governmental support that we could only dream of. Rugby League isn't even the biggest sport in the fraction of the North of England that it covers. The desire to expand could perhaps best be summed up as 'expand or die.' Expansion, however badly it has been handled, comes from the fear that if we don't expand our geographical base we will eventually be swamped by bigger sports. This has never been more apparent than in the last 20 years with the huge growth of  bigger global sports such as Football and Rugby Union. These are international sports with significant international competitions that increasingly make RL look parochial. In the modern world, more often than not, children are interested in the fame, money and glamour that goes with these worldwide sports.

The criticisms of how the heartlands have been handled are again vague and ignorant of the fact that many of these clubs had already started to decline pre-licensing. Yes, he is correct that the lack of P&R is contributing to the continued decline of many lower-division clubs but again it ignores the fact that this could not easily have been rectified, if rectified at all. He comments that in places such as Leigh and Featherstone RL was once king, but this ignores that even in places like Wigan or Hull, Football has started to take over. The age of RL only towns had already long gone in 1991. Ironically, many of the lower division Rugby League clubs have suffered because of the appeal of the global Premier League. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest examples of decline are in areas that have been affected by the growth of Manchester United. I believe it is misleading and erroneous to set up schools and junior expansion in contrast to the decline of traditional RL playing areas. It cannot be asserted that they are linked without much further evidence.

RL may continue to fail in its attempts to expand but in the 21st century it has little choice but to try. If we ever succeeded then the benefits would be enormous. There is little place for small, regional sports in an increasingly global world.

Summary: There has been a massive decline and this is largely due to the gulf in standards between the divisions as well as the season ticket culture. A lower division team will never make a final again. 

There is little doubt that the Challenge Cup has seen a huge decline and for many of the reasons that DD states. However, you only need to look at Football to see that the FA Cup has greatly declined despite their competition still being competitive. The season ticket culture has a big part to play but would he rather see lower attendances at league games to improve the attendance at cup games? I would suggest that the change away from attending cup competitions is a cultural one. Domestically, winning the league has become more important because it is more of an achievement. This is reflected in almost all team sports.

A lower division side will never make a final and again this is regrettable. Once again, what is the solution, should we revert back to a part-time competition to ensure that those clubs could still compete? What effect would this have on the sport in the 21st century?

Summary: DD gives 7 areas where he claims that we have blindly followed the Australians. These are areas such as the playoffs, the dropping of cup competitions and franchising. This desire to copy and catch them has led to short-termism within the game. Other sports don't look at their opposition this way. We won in 1970 doing it our own way and have wrecked the culture of our game trying to follow them.

For me, this is the worst section of the article and is rammed full of half-truths and incorrect assumptions. The basic assumption that we have tried too hard to follow Australia, cannot be argued, but DD goes way too far in the decisions that he attributes to this policy. For instance, there are many sports including Football and Rugby Union that believe their players play too many games, and in some cases even restrict how many they can play. When British RL believes this is a problem as well, and in a much more intense sport, it gets accused of blindly following Australian RL.

Within the list of 7 areas, there are some incredibly complicated issues that are uncritically lumped together under this policy of following the Australians. Even if you take the example of the top 8 playoff (of which we actually use a modified AFL version), it is far better explained as having been brought in to give the lower clubs something to aim for after the removal of relegation from Super League. Dropping P&R itself was a very British problem that certainly needed addressing. Australia simply served as an example of a league that prospered without relegation, AFL or any American sport could easily have been used to justify this position.  The solution of licensing in no way resembles the Australian system and comes purely from the desire to improve our game. If part of the end goal is to catch the Australian's on the field-of-play, then this is hardly the same thing as copying everything that they do.

The Exiles game is another example of half truth. Realistically its sole purpose is to provide England with a test to counter the test that State of Origin gives to the Australian players. This is because there are no other credible nations to bridge that gap; If France or Wales were good enough then it would not be necessary. Perhaps the worst attempt to blame policy on following Australia was with the dropping of many of the cup competitions. This ignores the reality that they had predictably declined in the modern era and that clubs felt they had too many fixtures to fulfill.

At the end DD puts his unique slant on history stating that we have fallen even further behind the Australians due to this pursuit of them. He even borders on the ludicrous as he says,

Was it worth wrecking the whole culture of our game to slip even further behind?

This is an incredibly one-sided viewing of the events and as such his article loses a great deal of credibility. Again the incorrect assumption is that things could have stayed the same and we'd have been fine. Finally, it takes a brave man to declare that we are further behind now than in 1982, especially seeing as though he didn't follow the game at that time. If everything was so good in the game before we started following the Australians, how did we ever slip so far behind in 1982?

Summary: There were only 5 teams playing when he started watching and it wasn't a problem. We attempted to fix things even though they weren't broken.  Fear of Rugby Union has led to a disastrous copying of their World Cup competitions and a breaking up of the Britain brand. Other sports don't need international games so why do we focus so much on it? Result is the same amount of countries competing and we are still no closer to beating Australia.

So after a mammoth effort, which has become increasingly unfair and unrealistic in its conclusions, DD finishes on the international game. Perhaps unexpectedly he doesn't focus too much on the decline of the tours, claiming that they were a necessary casualty of summer rugby. One area he does get right is that the breaking up of Great Britain RL was probably a mistake, although not a hugely significant one in my view.

Where he goes wrong again is in what he doesn't say. He claims that things weren't broken but this is certainly a selective viewing of events. Even if the situation appeared relatively healthy, it was almost certainly unsustainable and the further away in time it gets, the more then 1980's appears an anomaly in the history of international Rugby League. Nobody is suggesting that we have been successful in attempting to expand but once again the disagreement comes from whether it was necessary or not.  DD is quick to dismiss the impact of the Rugby Union World Cup and implies that we should have ignored it but this is easier said than done. As I pointed out earlier in my reply, the last 20 years has seen a massive increase in the profile of international sport to the detriment of non-international sports like our own. This might not be true of Aussie Rules or GAA but as I again pointed out, they have huge advantages over ourselves. GAA for instance is deeply intertwined with the Irish culture in a way RL cannot compare to, even in Wigan or Hull. 

The increased international profile of Rugby Union is undoubtedly one of the biggest threats to modern Rugby League. It has led to high profile players defecting and has given Union a much bigger following and exposure, even within the heartlands of British RL and Australia. To keep our best players we have to try and present a credible alternative and we have so far failed to do so. The result is that RL is increasingly marginalised and this puts pressure on the future of the game. This would of course still been the case had we stuck to the 5 playing nations from when DD started to watch the game.

Unfortunately, I believe that any international system that we would have tried would have failed. Nothing can change the reality that our inability to compete with Australia would have seen a decline in the profile of the international game. By 1997 it was already clear that we had fallen behind Australia again and this would have led to a decline of future tours regardless.


It is hard to argue with the conclusion of DD that RL is less enjoyable to follow than in the late 80's and early 90's. It is also perhaps right to say that on the whole, the game was healthier with a wider support base. That is not to say that the modern game is not enjoyable or in poor health. It is also hard to argue with the conclusion that domestic and international expansion have both failed and that some bad decisions have been made over the last 20 years.

However, the reasons for the current position of Rugby League are not fairly represented by DD in this article. He attempts to pin the blame for the perceived failings largely on decisions taken by the RFL, without ever adequately assessing the reasons behind those decisions being taken, or the likely consequences of the alternative decisions being made. In this way, he is certainly viewing the past with rose-tinted glasses as he is arguing the case for a Rugby League that could not exist anymore. He is ignorant of the reality that big changes would have always occurred due to the huge societal and cultural changes over the last 20 years.

I found the article as a whole to be contradictory in its conclusions. For instance, for us to have kept the credibility of cup competitions and P&R we would have had to stay as a part time game and in doing so we would have undoubtedly lost more players to Union and suffered bigger defeats internationally. The profile and prestige of the game would have still declined leading to many of the problems that we currently suffer.  Perhaps the best summary of this came from MJM on the TotalRL.com forums,

1. Running Rugby League isn't easy. Being Rugby League isn't easy. It is and always has been a marginalised sport, but that doesn't make the people running the game failures for trying to do their best for it and for continuing to expand it wherever possible.

It is undoubtedly regrettable that DD feels as he does about RL and there are certainly some issues that he addresses well. What I found most strange is that he accepts that some of these problems were unavoidable whilst at the same time trying to pin a variety of similar problems on the eternal boogeymen of the RFL. This makes you question the reason for the article. 

If it is a criticism of the RFL, then it fails because of the reasons that I have given. If it is simply a lament that the game isn't what it once was, why the need for the incredibly detailed and point by point assessment of the games problems?  He has subsequently admitted on the Redvee forum that he does not think that these problems can now be rectified, so why bother bringing them to the attentions of the masses in this way? The article therefore, serves no real purpose but to sensationalise the perceived decline of Rugby League and to draw attention to the fact that he has fallen out of love with the game, something many people have done quietly over the years. For that reason it ends up making DD look bitter and as if he is trying to stick the boot in. 

The problem is, who exactly is he sticking the boot into, Father Time?

1 comment:

  1. Decent piece mate. Some good counter arguments.

    I would however argue that if you happened to see the semi finals of the CC last weekend for the first time, you could well be enthused about the game and not even be aware that it existed even 5 years ago, never mind in 1987 when all was well.

    RL is a brilliant game, something that we forget sometimes.