Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Relationship: Super League & NRL

One of the most successful Rugby League clubs,
Wigan, will take part in the World Club Series next week
Last week Paul Gallen expressed his desire to finish his career in the English Super League after a final year at Cronulla in 2016. The comments came as a surprise given Gallen’s position in the game as captain of Cronulla and NSW, and vice captain of Australia. His remarks were honest and based on a lifestyle ambition to experience something different in his career. He is one of only a select few in recent times to state a genuine desire to play in the Super League, rather than chase the money in European or Japanese Rugby. Being the only other professional Rugby League competition in the world, the Super League has often been a last resort for players out of the loop in Australia, finishing their careers, or when all other options have been exhausted.
In the mid 2000’s Super League was thriving, at its height stealing hundreds of players from Australia. The exchange rate and a dismal salary cap in the NRL saw many players leave the game and head to England to play in the northern hemisphere competition. The trend was to head to Super League for the money.

Over the last five years, the exodus has actually swung the other way, with a trend of English-based players leaving British shores and heading to Australia. The global financial crisis affected the exchange rate, and the NRL finally realised it needed to boost its salary cap which swung the trend in the NRL’s favour, but majority of players have to come to experience more, soaking up the Australian lifestyle. Sam Burgess was one of the first in 2010 to make the move down-under and ever since there has been no end of players following his transition.

Much like the NRL, the Super League has had a broad variety of changes happening behind the scenes. The professionalism of the competition has lifted, they have followed many rule changes of the NRL and on the back of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup played in Europe the game has been looking to build its popularity. Much of the push for change in England has come from Salford City Red’s owner, Marwan Koukash. Koukash is the man who has been searching for an NRL franchise to purchase. The cashed up billionaire may appear like other rich owners who buy sporting teams across the world and play with them for fun, but Koukash backs up his words, having injected millions into his Salford club.  His ambitious idea of entering a team in the NRL competition based out of England and playing games in England, Dubai and Australia is fairly far-fetched, but there’s no denying his enthusiasm. His interest in the NRL is significant, but Koukash would be better kept in England and focusing on growing the game there. He has been peppering the league about introducing a marquee player allowance, has ideas for the competition and the game itself, and his obvious wealth shows he is a man who can get things done.
Ambitious ideas or realistic plans - Marwan Koukash
Koukash’s recent comments that the only way for Rugby League to grow is for ‘integration between the two competitions’, is spot on. The newly appointed NRL Head of Strategy, Shane Richardson, is a big believer in the international game and was the mastermind behind the upcoming World Club Series where three NRL teams will player three Super League teams, an expansion of the World Club Challenge where each competition’s winners play each other.
Detractors of Rugby League will write Super League off as nothing more than a game played in Northern parts of England, but Rugby League is much bigger and the 2013 world cup showed that countries in Europe do play the game.

With further integration between the leagues, and a push towards the 2017 world cup in Australia, Rugby League must grow itself both domestically and internationally. The opportunities are now there to jump on, with the pacific island nations now running teams out full of first grade level players. The same could be said for the smaller nations in Europe like France, Scotland, Italy and Ireland.

Celebrating ten years in the Super League this year, the Catalan Dragons in the south of France currently represent the most important team in both competitions as they are the key to growing the game in Europe. Todd Carney’s albeit forced-decision to join them is the best of his career. Carney will dominate the Super League and now out of the spotlight he will flourish purely focusing on his football. He has an opportunity to take a franchise to its first title, ignite the Rugby League scene in France and make up for his lost opportunities with success. 

Carney has the best chance of his career to succeed
 Carney will take Catalan to a title and his story will plant the seed of playing in Europe for other NRL players for lifestyle reasons as opposed to ‘double the money’ in the mid 2000’s. Justin Hodges this week claimed he wanted to finish his career in England and that he had held ambitions of winning a Super League title for most of his career. “My dream has always been to go over there and win a comp there,” Hodges claimed.

Further integration would occur between the competitions if players in the Super League were allowed to play in State of Origin and Australian representative teams. Allowing this would boost interest in the game in general, generating more media coverage and interest from abroad. Imagine if Todd Carney was named in the NSW team while playing in France, the interest from Super League would be immense.

Super League is on the verge of becoming as big as it was at the height of its popularity in the mid 2000’s. The ‘New Era’ it has branded itself with, a sleek professional look with new players and people like Koukash backing it, will see it grow and become a competitive option for Australian based players to consider when searching for a new contract.
Super League still retains a true sense of tribalism which seems to be disappearing from the NRL. You can walk to games with ease, stadiums are purpose built and hold an atmosphere even when there aren’t full attendances. The fans are much like football fans; loud and proud, singing for most of the game. The buzz around stadiums in local pubs is exciting. The games have one referee, decisions are made swiftly and without weeks of arguing after a bad call, the tickets are cheap and the grounds are easily accessible from public transport.

The NRL could learn a lot from its little brother on the other side of the world instead of going all corporate and trying to be so politically correct. The significant drop in crowd numbers last year was no coincidence, sports fans in Australia are becoming fed up and taking an interest in what else is on offer. Yes, become a big business and build the game financially but don’t forget to focus on retaining what Rugby League is all about, get your product right and the fans will return. You’ve only got to look back to where the game originally came from for a few ideas and answers.