Saturday, 7 October 2017

Castleford 2017 - The Successors to Widnes 1989

I'm fortunate to be just about old enough to remember the great Widnes side of the late 1980s and early 90's. This side is remembered not just for winning the league and the World Club Challenge but for the way they played the game. I've lost count the number of times I've been told positive things about that team from fans of other clubs. 
Castleford - Super League Champions surely?

Sadly, that side ended up representing the end of an era and not just for long suffering Widnes fans but for the sport of Rugby League. As with other sports such as football, the nature of professional sport changed and it was to be the biggest and richest clubs that would dominate. In the 28 years since Widnes last won the trophy, there have only been 4 clubs that have won the ultimate prize: Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Bradford. All clubs who where in the biggest 3 or 4 clubs in RL at the time. The preceding 28 years had a total of 15 different winners including small town clubs like Featherstone, Dewsbury and Leigh.

Until recently, it didn't look like this trend would end any time soon. Other clubs have challenged, most notably Warrington and Hull, but their challenge has come as a result of establishing themselves as one of the bigger clubs. A few years ago it looked like Huddersfield might do it and they topped the table, but they never quite looked like they would win it and they didn't even make the Grand Final. It seems a long time ago, but just last year for 7 games or so we dreamed it could be us again but that was certainly proved wrong!

Then Castleford came along. Even though we've been involving in a few Promotion and Relegation scraps with them, I've never felt any animosity and even had a bit of a soft spot for them. I can't speak for the rest of Widnes fans but I'm pretty sure they don't feature in the 'We hate Featherstone Rovers' chant either. Castleford are not only the first of the smaller clubs to truly compete, they have dominated Super League this year and made it to the Grand Final. 

However, simply winning or competing on its own is not enough to compare them to the great Widnes team. It is the way they have played the game which has been admired by fans across the game. In an era which has been dominated by structured and conservative play they have played the game in the spirit in which it was intended. If they win tonight I've no doubt they'll be spoken of in a similar way to how Widnes still are.

So good luck to Castleford Tigers from this Widnes fan. Do it for the little guys and you just never know, it might be us there one day again. We can but dream...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

What is the best system for Super League?

Widnes' defeat of Catalans leaves them favourites for relegation
So after a season of ups and downs it looks like the unthinkable might happen: Super League's flagship expansion club Catalans Dragons could be relegated on Saturday afternoon. They will start the Million Pound Game as comfortable underdogs against a fresher Leigh side who beat them easily in Perpignan just a few weeks ago. This would undoubtedly be terrible news for RL in France and the UK.

This has prompted fury from many quarters within Rugby League and it is the implementation of the Super 8s system by the RFL that has come in for most of the criticism. It is often presented in direct comparison to licensing where clubs like Catalans would be protected from relegation. This is then too often treated as a black and white issue with little genuine discussion about the challenges faced in trying to create a workable system for British RL. For instance there is little acknowledgement of the problems that the systems were trying to address in the first place. The truth is that there is no perfect system for Rugby League and all systems have their benefits and drawbacks. All we can realistically hope for is the least best compromise but if we are ever to accurately decide which one this is we need to assess each of them openly and be honest about the potential downsides to each.

What is the best system for Super league?

Over the course of the last 20 years of Super League there have been three different systems and all have attempted to address what are the three main difficulties in creating a league system:

1) There is a huge gulf between Super League and the Championship in finance, support, playing standard and profile. This is so severe that a relegated club spending a prolongued period in the lower leagues can find themselves sufficiently weakened to the point they might never be in a place to return.

2) There are currently approximately 20 clubs in the British leagues with the potential to sustain a Super League club the size of Salford/Wakefield or bigger. Even a league of 14 clubs leaves around 6 in the lower leagues facing a slow death if they don't have access to Super League. In addition to this there are around another 20 clubs who have either been top level clubs at some point in the past, are very small clubs or are new grassroots expansion clubs. The RFL are reluctant to lose these clubs and want to keep them as strong as possible which usually involves them offering a route to the top division.

3) Expansion is of such strategic importance that the game needs to protect expansion clubs from potential disintegration in the lower leagues. They are seen as more vulnerable than heartland clubs.

Straight Promotion and Relegation
Of all the systems, this is on paper the least controversial. After all, it is what was in place for the previous 20 years and is the system practised by Football amongst other sports in Britain. It is usually the system favoured by those who favour promotion and relegation (P&R) as it is a fairer system and less convoluted than the Super 8s.

It had many positive features. Crucially, it allowed an achievable pathway for clubs not in Super League to make it to Super League. This was important because especially at that time, the 12 strongest clubs weren't necessarily in Super League. Under this system once famous clubs such as Widnes, Hull FC and Hull KR were able to find their way back to the top division despite periods where they were much weaker than the clubs around them. The nature of needing to win the Championship on the pitch created significant momentum for the promoted clubs.

However, it is easy to forget the downsides. For a number of years the system was pretty farcical and Championship Grand Final winners were refused entry for not meeting the required standards. Those that were promoted were all too often clubs staying full time after being relegated the season before and easing to promotion. It also wasn't a good system for expansion clubs. They either had to be protected from relegation which created the uncomfortable situation where a team was relegated despite not finishing above an expansion side, or we ran the risk of losing a club crucial to the game's development if they had a bad season. Any return to this system would still have to address these significant problems.

The introduction of licensing was a bold and highly controversial move by the RFL. It sought to solve many of the problems of the previous system by offering protection to the expansion clubs whilst giving clubs the opportunity to plan ahead without the fear of relegation and the short-termism that it produced.

Again it had many upsides. We were able to select the 14 strongest clubs at any one time whilst giving expansion clubs a chance they might not have got under P&R. The removal of the threat of relegation allowed clubs to prioritise youth development more than they would have done. Super League crowds peaked under this system averaging over 10,000 for a time. I stated on this blog in 2012 that I was pro-licensing for many of these reasons.

However, the system was far from perfect and in my opinion it started to unravel somewhat towards the end. Its main problem was that 14 clubs was too many for a fully professional league whilst not being enough to allow SL to become a true closed shop like the NRL. The RFL was in essence cutting the vast majority of the lower division clubs adrift as the removal of automatic P&R was only ever going to weaken those divisions significantly. This is why they stayed at 14 clubs because 12 would have meant the probable loss of another two decent sized clubs. 

The removal of the relegation threat combined with a 14 team league led them to the poorly thought out top-8 playoff to try and sustain interest for the lower placed clubs. Instead of motivating them it ended up devaluing the league campaign significantly which was magnified by Leeds winning from 5th place two years in a row. By 2014 the system felt sterile and it had become pretty joyless especially for lower placed clubs who stood no chance of winning the title and who had discovered that finishing 7th or 8th was little to get excited about. The system in the NRL and elsewhere works because there is significant movement of clubs; there simply isn't in British RL (4 league winners in 28 years) and nor is there likely to be any time soon. It is often forgotten by those who view licensing as forward thinking, that crowds fell significantly during the last two years of this system. Although this cannot be completely attributed to licensing it cannot be completely discounted either.

The Super 8s
Calls from many for the return of some form of promotion and relegation led to the somewhat bizarre introduction of the Super 8s concept which could be described as an extreme version of P&R. It was initially received with some bemusement and there were few fans of the new system when it was announced.

It hasn't proved quite as bad as many feared it would be and for the lower placed clubs it has certainly provided more excitement than under licensing. On a personal note, Widnes' win at Catalans was the most nervous and relieved I have been watching a game in years. Unless you are genuinely challenging for the title, then licensing doesn't create enough moments of drama in this way and I do think that is an issue: stability isn't sexy. The Qualifiers in particular have been very interesting and more competitive than was initially feared.

Despite this it is fraught with problems. The season feels much too long especially the Super 8s section which feels like an unnecessary add-on for the top clubs. The RFL's baseless claims that jeopardy would increase crowds predictably hasn't happened and crowds for the Super 8s portion of the season are lower than during the regular season. Even the jeopardy of the Qualifiers feels like it has too much on the line when you see players literally playing knockout matches for their livelihoods and their club's future. This happened under normal P&R but far less often.

Then there is Catalans. Jeopardy is all very exciting but we are playing Russian Roulette with our top clubs, hoping that they don't suffer from poor form and end up relegated. We've managed to dodge it with Warrington and Leeds getting it right in the end but it now looks likely that Catalans will fall prey. Whether they lose or not, it is this that will lead to the demise of the Super 8s in my opinion. We simply cannot afford to risk big clubs, especially not expansion ones, to a temporary loss of form.

Are there any alternatives?
As I've laid out, it appears there is only really a 'least worst' option for Super League. However, there have been alternatives suggested by fans and pundits. One such idea usually involves two leagues of 10 teams which would be called Super League 1 and Super League 2; these 20 clubs would be awarded licenses much like under licensing. Crucial to the success of this idea would be more equal funding between the leagues and television coverage. If not handled successfully, we would run the risk or having all the same negative effects of P&R but with fewer clubs at the top table thus reducing the pool of strong clubs. I'm not sure it would be possible to prevent Super League 2 from becoming the Championship again over time.

Another more recent example gaining traction on the forums is a conference structure where we have a conference for heartland clubs and one for other expansion teams. There would be some relegation still for the heartland conference and maybe even amongst expansion clubs as well but it would allow the strategically important clubs to be protected. This is not a terrible idea but there would be some logistical issues (for instance what do you call the conferences, M62 and Rest of the World?) and credibility might be an issue. Recent Super Rugby Union seasons and the World Club Challenge in 1997 both had the ridiculous situation where much weaker clubs made the finals purely because one of the conferences was much weaker than another.

The Conclusion
If I was was given the power to make a decision on the best system, I would go for a return to straight promotion and relegation but with some significant changes. Rather than shy away from our problems and try to pretend they don't exist we should accept them and make expansion clubs exempt from relegation; their place could be reassessed every 3 years or so. I would also make P&R automatic for the lowest place heartland club with no more judging based on off-field standards. We could in effect have a licensing of the top two divisions to only include clubs willing and able to take a Super League place if they won the division. These clubs could be assessed every 2 or 3 years.

However, I think we are heading for a return to licensing; I don't think this would be an entirely bad thing. This wouldn't be easy especially after 'every minute matters' and the subsequent implication that it didn't under licensing. We will also be ridiculed for chopping and changing our system again but this is not a reason to persist with a poor system. Also, it could be reasonably argued that with no ideal solution for all clubs, the best one is the one that prioritises the health of the bigger clubs. Despite this, I wouldn't like to see a return to licensing exactly as it was. I'd hope they would address the top 8 playoff problem and allow for more flexible movement between the leagues rather than every 3 years set in stone.

The length of this blog post is a small indication of the complicated nature of choosing the best system for Super League and Rugby League in general. The only certainty is that whichever system is picked, there will be significant opposition from some quarters but it wouldn't be Rugby League if there wasn't!

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 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 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?

Monday, 23 April 2012

Far from being God, is Steve O'Connor ultimately responsible for the fans' unrest?

Another huge, although predictable defeat. At the beginning of the season if you had said that we would have lost 62-0 to Saints, whilst disappointed, I don't think many of us would have seen it as any sort of an indication of how our season was going. 

Heaven knows, we've seen good Widnes teams go to Saints and come away with their tails between their legs. The 56-0 defeat of 2002 comes to mind; this coming off the back of an incredible 5 match away winning run. 

However, a quick look on Twitter or the Trust in Widnes websites, shows that Widnes fans are incredibly unhappy, not just with this result but with how the season has gone. The St Helens defeat was most disappointing because it represented another false dawn. Just last week, an incredible ending saw us nearly pip St Helens to a victory and whilst few fans got overly excited, most hoped that it represented the turning of a corner. Unfortunately, it appears that it did no such thing and if anything, represented the reality that St Helens were in second or third gear for the cup game.

As with most defeats in this manner, the blame game starts. Most fans apportion their blame to Betts, Cullen or a mixture of both. Some still continue to blame the situation and remain adamant that we are performing at an expected level, especially given the injuries that we have. However, perhaps unusually for a sports club, almost nobody blames the Chairman. This seems odd, seeing as though he is the person who has the ultimate say. It would of course be strange to blame our on the field performances on O'Connor, but should he take a degree of blame for how the fans are feeling? 

Is Steve O'Connor responsible for fans' unrest?

The reason most Widnes fans are reluctant to criticise O'Connor is because of what he has done for the club in the past. Not only did he save the club after the horror of going into administration, he has turned the club into a professional outfit off the field. In previous years, whilst we had good levels of support, we were ran poorly. Aspects like the club shop, the clubs image and marketing were amateurish and very much secondary to what happened on the pitch. Therefore, not only did he save the club but he turned it into a better sports club than we ever imagined. Without him, it is hard to imagine that we would have won the Super League license. As one of the fans who travelled home from Leeds in 2007 wondering whether we would have a club again, nobody is more grateful than I am.

Perhaps more importantly, our continued license is viewed as being very much reliant on the continued presence of O'Connor at the club. This means that some fans are reluctant to criticise O'Connor out of fear that he will leave and we would end up losing our Super League place. This is an understandable position but not one that I subscribe to; I think O'Connor is streetwise enough to understand that he is likely to face criticism as a high profile figure of a sports club. However, this desire not to criticise O'Connor often spills over into something else. He has been built into this infallible figure and we increasingly hear comments saying that we should have faith in what O'Connor is doing and implying that we shouldn't question it. In this way, some fans almost treat O'Connor as a godlike figure, someone who knows better than we do. It reminds me of the familiar saying of the religious, 'the Lord works in mysterious ways.' Not surprisingly, I don't subscribe to this. 

A risky decision
For me the current unrest comes largely down to one decision; the appointment of Denis Betts as Super League coach in 2011. However, not necessarily for the expected reasons. 

When Denis Betts was appointed in 2010, most Widnes fans were willing to give him a chance. The fact that he was only given a years contract, suggested that this appointment was a trial for a Super League contract. This seemed reasonable but inexplicably he was then given a 2 year Super League contract after just a handful of what fans perceived as poor performances. This was a very unpopular decision and and in hindsight was handled very strangely. Why wasn't he just given a 3 year contract in 2010 if the clubs on field performances in 2011 were going to be irrelevant? Maybe O'Connor saw something in this early stage that he felt justified a contract extension but this still seems like an odd way of handling the situation.

This decision had repercussions into the Super League season. We finished 2011 in poor form and meant that many Widnes fans went into Super League unhappy with the choice of coach. This inevitably dampened enthusiasm and will have likely had an effect on Stronghold numbers. The bigger problem came when the season started and the performances weren't at the expected level. Because of his lack of experience and poor prior record, fans haven't been willing to give Betts the benefit of the doubt. When the club claims that better recruitment wasn't possible; that we have been unlucky with injuries and that it is a steep learning curve, it has been increasingly hard to accept that these are the real reasons behind our problems. 

I actually feel a bit for Betts in this respect. It is eminently possible that everything the club is saying is correct. However, he isn't going to get the benefit of the doubt because there is no positive reason to. This is why Steve O'Connor should have gone with a coach with more experience and a better record. That way, fans would have been more likely to accept the issues. If for instance John Kear was saying that recruitment was difficult, fans would have been more likely to trust his opinion because he has recent experience of recruitment. In reality, Betts has done nothing wrong but have a go at a difficult job. Steve O'Connor took the choice to tackle Super League with an inexperienced and already unpopular coach. If we were always going to be facing huge defeats as the club now implies, then does it make sense to put that pressure on the shoulders of an unproven coach? It was clearly a risk and one that hasn't paid off judging by the level of unrest of Widnes fans; I honestly cannot remember it being so high. 

What needs to be done?
Whether or not Betts is doing as good a job as anybody and admittedly I don't think that he is, I think that Steve O'Connor needs to accept that he was the wrong choice and replace him. In his last interview, O'Connor said that it would be pointless to change coaches this soon into a 3 year plan. However, the fans need a reason to trust that a long term plan will come good and it is the sheer fact that we have no reason, that is causing this level of unrest. Of course, there would always be some unrest if we were losing, but even the most respected and reasonable fans have no faith in the current system. There has to be a reason to believe other than blind faith. This unhappiness is starting to spill over into fans threatening to cancel their Stronghold memberships or even boycott games until a change is made. If we replaced Betts and saw no improvement then the club would be justified. Even so, it would provide temporary optimism which is desperately needed. It is hard to imagine that things could get any worse when you have lost your club record defeat. 

The timing cannot be more crucial. We cannot rest on our laurels and think that we have a great deal of time to build. We we will be finalising our license applications in just 2 years time. This might seem like a while, but realistically it is the rest of this season, next season, and the first few months of the 3rd season. If we continue as we are and then recruit poorly again next year, we would likely see a reduction in Strongholds for next year. This would mean that we would likely suffer lower crowds and these two years would form the majority of the evidence for our 2014 application. 

What makes this worse is that despite my protestations about how 14 is the only workable number for licensing, there appears to be a tide of opinion moving towards 12 Super League clubs. Unless we get things right soon, we would clearly be in the running to be dropped. We need to be able to show what we can bring to Super League in this relatively short window. 

Whilst O'Connor is currently still viewed as a hero, how would he be viewed if he oversaw our transition back to the Championship and blew probably our last shot at Super League. Come on Steve, do the right thing. 

Saturday, 24 March 2012

An update on the Twitter Hashtags

Check out 5 down...
A few months ago, I started this blog largely to explain the reasons behind the Super League Twitter hashtags. Since then, I've gone on to write a number of blogs although admittedly far more of them have been about the Widnes situation than I would have hoped. Anyway, putting that on the back burner for the time being (we'll see what happens on Sunday...), I thought it would be worthwhile outlining what has since happened with the hashtags.

When we first discussed the use of Twitter hashtags for Rugby League games, it was met with a good amount of scepticism, ranging from friendly criticism like this:

Don't get why we can't all just stick to #rugbyleague but there ya go! (Bilko RLfans)

To more vitrolic criticism like this:

Can't you all just learn about social media? Your hashtags will never trend, we just don't have the numbers to do it! They're too specific to games, not to the sport, which is where the problem comes in. I've been saying it for the last year since this stupid idea came up.

Just stick to #rugbyleague, #superleague or even mention the club names as proper words, you've got way more chance doing it this way than wasting your time with those awful hashtags. (Paul124897 RLFans)

This was to be somewhat expected from Rugby League fans, but hopefully we have changed some of these opinions.

What has happened with the hashtags since?

Positive signs

Naturally, there have been ups and downs, but there have certainly been some huge positives. None more so than the fact that the game specific hashtags have trended on 3 occasions. The first game of the season briefly trended; the Leeds-Warrington game was trending for a long time and last night's Wigan-Warrington game was also trending. This is great news and evidence that the hashtags are creating increased opportunities for the sport to trend nationally. Yesterday's game was up against Sport Relief which was dominating most of the top 10 list, making it all the more impressive. 

Perhaps equally satisfying, is how quickly the hashtags have become accepted during regular games. The tags were originally trialled during two playoff encounters at the end of the year. The first game did well and there were around 400 tweets during the game; the second game had much fewer despite being a Saints-Wigan derby. Tonight's game was the first where I have checked the number of tweets since then and it was over 1,000 during the game. Many of the people tweeting are those that were originally sceptical and openly hostile. This suggests that the second main benefit; that of making the game easier to follow on Twitter, is also working.

The continued driving force behind their use seems to have been some of the clubs and official accounts. After the opening Widnes game, for reasons I will explain later, the use of hashtags fell off somewhat but still some avenues continued to use them. Notable mentions include @WiganWarriorsRL and @thechemics, who both use the hashtags when updating their games. This helps to give credibility to the campaign.

Current issues and moving forward

Some that have followed the campaign will be aware of the frustration that we have had with the official Rugby League bodies. For instance, originally, the campaign was a purely fan driven initiative and it was the fans that got many clubs, players and journalists on board with it. However, the Grand Final tags were thrown into chaos when the official Super League account released its own version just a couple of hours before the final.

A similar event occurred prior to the beginning of this season, when the official account released a set of hashtags for all games, but it was quickly decided that we would adopt their hashtag system rather than continue with our own slightly different version. However, since then the official account has not only stopped releasing the official hashtags but they also don't use them in their own tweets related to the games. This led to a dropping off of their usage and until the Wigan game in which they trending, I suspected the campaign had stalled. This is in direct contrast to how the official accounts in Australia act about it. If the Super League account used them often, it would encourage the other official club accounts to use them and increase their usage.

Obviously, we can't complain when the games are trending but things could be improved still and we could continue to get more people to use them. Currently, in 2 of the 3 games where it has trended, it has quickly dropped off the top 10 list. Many people are still using the #rugbyleague hashtag as a preference but as I explained in the last blog, this has not trended once and is extremely unlikely to trend. By far the best way to get the hashtags trending would be to get Sky involved. They have improved their coverage this year and even started referring to their official Twitter account during shows, but it would help enormously if they referred to the hashtags as well. If we trended more often and for longer, it would give them more exposure.

So, all in all things have gone well and long may they continue to do so. Hopefully, the next time I comment on them, they will be a regular feature on the top 10 trending lists.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Are Widnes undermining the Licensing system?

The Licensing process in trouble? 
Well that was painfully predictable wasn't it?

Just a week after one of the most incredible victories in recent times, Widnes were given a Rugby League lesson by a good Hull side, losing 58-10. This clearly isn't good enough and most fans are very unhappy with the way things are going. Following the game on Twitter, the result created a fair amount of comment from fans of other clubs as well.

Many of the comments were harmless banter, as you'd expect from our rivals, but a number of comments focussed on the way in which we were promoted; Widnes were the first club promoted under the current licensing arrangements. This system promotes clubs based largely on a number of off-the-field criteria and controversially Widnes were promoted despite finishing in a lowly fifth place in last year's Championship.

Our continued poor performances in Super League have led many to not only question our inclusion but also the whole licensing process. Andy Wilson did so a few weeks back on Super League Back Chat but today BBC's George Riley tweeted this,

V worrying for Widnes and the licensing system. 58-0 down to Hull FC #rugbyleague

Are Widnes undermining the Licensing system?

Playing performances
Nobody denies that Widnes have under performed on the pitch so far this season. Despite the victory against Wigan, we have failed to compete in almost all the other games this year. After 7 rounds, only Workington in 1996 had a worse points difference at this stage. It is looking distinctly likely that Widnes are going to finish bottom this year and probably by some distance. However, before this can be blamed on the licensing system you have to examine the situation pre-licensing. Widnes were promoted in 2001 and finished an excellent 7th that year. Here is the record of teams that were promoted after that year:

2003 - Huddersfield. 10th out of 12 with 11 wins.
2004 - Salford. 9th out of 12 with 8 wins.
2005 - Leigh. 12th out of 12 with 2 wins.
2006 - Catalans. 12th out of 12 with 8 wins.
2007 - Hull KR. 11th out of 12 with 8 wins. 
2008 - Castleford. 12th out of 12 with 7 wins.
2009 - Salford. 13th out of 14 with 7 wins.
2009 - Crusaders. 14th out of 14 with 3 wins. 

As you can see, it is a very mixed bag. If you look closer, there is a correlation between teams doing better when they had been relegated the year previous. They used the year as a year of consolidation and often retained a nucleus of the Super League squad. Looking at the teams in bold, they are the clubs that were new to Super League and as you can see many struggled. However, nobody claimed that the promotion and relegation system was under threat when Leigh finished with just 2 victories in 2005.

The closest comparison to Widnes was the promotion of Catalan Dragons in 2006. Although Salford and Crusaders were promoted through a licensing system, they also finished 1st and 2nd that year, making their promotion closer to the example of P & R. Catalans however, were promoted based on off-field criteria and came from the lower standard French leagues. They did surprisingly well and as we all know, finished 3rd just 2 years later.

Widnes are doing badly not because of the licensing system but because of bad coaching and bad recruitment. All clubs that are promoted have to recruit a large number of new players, there is no reason to assume that Featherstone would have recruited better. It is of course ideal if you have a strong nucleus of players and this is a problem that we should have addressed last year; licensing certainly gave us the time to do so. However, Leigh also did poorly in 2002, regardless of their strong nucleus. A higher quality coach with higher quality recruitment would have seen a more competitive side on the pitch this year.

A misunderstanding of the licensing system
Even though we have had this system for 4 years, some people still fail to understand the aims of the licensing system; which is to create as many strong clubs as possible. This is why so much is focussed on off-the-field matters. Successful teams are temporary but successful clubs are not. It's no coincidence that the strongest Super League teams tend to correlate most often with the strongest Super League clubs such as Leeds, Wigan, Warrington and St Helens. These clubs get the most supporters through the gates; have the best youth programmes; make the most money and promote the image of Rugby League the best.

Without licensing, Featherstone would most likely have been promoted instead of Widnes. Without disrespecting that club; as they are well ran, they currently do not have the facilities, finance or attendances to sustain that success at Super League level. Whilst they would have likely had a better crack of it this year than Widnes have, the real test is whether or not they would have been a more successful Super League club after 3 years. Featherstone accepted that they were not ready to attempt this and as such were not involved in the process.

As many fans pointed out on Twitter, the test will be whether or not we are still losing this way in 3 years time. If we have improved considerably and are getting good attendances then the decision will have been vindicated and Super League will be stronger for it. A strong Widnes will be stronger than any other current Championship club. I would like it if we were competing better and I believe that there are steps we should be taking to address it now, but to suggest that our poor performances are a reflection on the licensing process is flawed reasoning.

In 3 years time, we will have no excuses if we are still off the pace, we will very probably be replaced by another club. Then maybe, the decision to promote Widnes can be adequately assessed. However, it would take numerous clubs being promoted before licensing itself could be blamed. Currently, it appears far more likely that Widnes have recruited poorly in the same way Leigh did, rather than being indicative of the whole process.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Sometimes it's all about the Positives

Widnes seal an incredible 37-36 victory
Time to eat a slice of humble pie? Not quite, but I'll gladly eat some anyway.

After a week where the coach and the squad faced renewed criticism, Widnes incredibly pulled off a thrilling 37-36 victory over Wigan; a club that were overwhelming favourites and were looking to go top. Anybody that has read this blog over the last couple of weeks will know that I have been vocal in my calling for the sacking of Denis Betts, pointing to the fact that statistically we had been shocking and that Denis has a poor record as a Rugby League head coach.

Has my opinion changed? Not at all. You could therefore, think that today is something of a bittersweet victory for people like myself. After all, anybody that wants to see Betts replaced will now inevitably have to wait longer than if we had been predictably trounced 70-0. Admittedly, this thought has crossed my mind, but I'm much happier to take the victory. Here's why:

Sometimes the positives are far more important

The Fans
Apart from one half against Wakefield, the first 5 weeks back being a Super League fan had been a pretty miserable experience for Widnes fans. As I showed last week, our form was such that it was in the same league as some of the worst ever Super League teams.

Being a fan in such circumstances is not fun. In my opinion, Rugby League is not the sort of sport where you can sit back and enjoy the quality of the opposition; a good attack needs a good defence to be worthwhile. It was starting to look like a distinct possibility that we could go through a large portion of the season without a win. For many Widnes fans, this would have proved unbearable and it would have become harder to justify paying to watch it.

This victory, has rewarded those fans and reminded us exactly why we dreamt of Super League in the first place. It has also provided some much needed optimism and given the die-hard fans something to look forward to next week and moving forward. Perhaps most importantly, it has shown us that we're not looking at a season purely of beatings, that regardless of how low it gets we have the ability in us to spring a shock. This makes it easier to take the beatings. Fans can attend games and remember this game, even if we've lost by 50 the week before, you never know what might happen. Who knows, it might be Warrington that next see this side of Widnes.

The Players
Prior to the season, most pundits had written off the squad that had been assembled; little had happened to change that opinion during the opening weeks. Some players, such as Lloyd White and Willie Isa, had seen a great deal of personal criticism aimed at them. This win, gets a considerable monkey off their backs, and must give them some confidence that they can mix it with the big names of Super League. Also, I'm sure they'll go in training this week in a much more positive mood.

Much has also been made of the missing Widnes players, but I would argue that many of them would struggle to get back into the side when they play like that. The new additions clearly made a difference and this can only be good for creating competition amongst players and building our best side.

The Club 
The bad start had led many people to question the licensing process and especially Widnes's inclusion. It's not going too far to say that many were questioning what we would ever bring to Super League. Anybody that will see the highlights of the game, cannot fail to see a decent sized, passionate crowd going crazy over a victory. It will remind people of the value to Super League of a good Widnes club.

Much more importantly, is that it should stem the tide of Stronghold cancellations. I have no hard evidence to go off but I suspect that the club has lost a fair number of Stronghold memberships already. Yesterday's attendance of 7,357 was OK considering the large numbers brought by Wigan but it would have been much higher had people not been expecting a huge defeat. People are naturally fickle and many will have decided that it's not worth going to watch Widnes lose comfortably every week. This has reminded people why they signed up in the first place and creates the hope that with time the team will improve. Without this win, the season was quickly looking like a lost cause.

Whilst the season may have been rectified by sacking Betts, the situation may have been so dire by then that large swathes of Stronghold memberships had gone. This would have obvious implications for future seasons. On previous form, most fans anticipated that a comfortable loss to London in round 8 would have been the trigger. This would be almost a third of the season and whilst Betts may still face the sack at a later date, this victory may at least encourage Stronghold members to stay on, as they face the possibility of the odd great victory.

Not getting too carried away
Whilst there are tangible positives, it's important that fans don't get too carried away and expect that things have magically changed overnight. Beating Wigan under any circumstances is a significant achievement but it doesn't hide the fact that we still conceded 36 points. Until the defensive area is addressed we are still going to lose many more games than we win, and I expect that we will still face a comfortable defeat against Hull on Sunday. A more realistic hope would be to compete and keep them to around 16 points.

I still believe that another coach will be best to improve the defensive structure of the squad but ironically this victory could end up putting Betts under more pressure in the medium term. Now, it's much harder to argue that the squad don't have the ability to compete and if we quickly go back to the old ways in the next couple of weeks, it could end up prompting his departure. However, it has certainly given him a reprieve for a few weeks at least and given him another opportunity to stake his claim. He's earned this at least.

It's been a difficult few weeks to be a Widnes fan, and whilst this one victory is not everything, it is certainly a relief. It will be good to be able to look forward to a game next weekend; to go back to defending the I-pitch instead of the team and to finally be able to write about something else on my blog!