I've had this article in my head for several months now and not had the confidence or conviction to write it. In some ways I am not sure that it's my job. Do I have the right to point out the problems in the game? What do I know?
Well let's begin by listing some facts. The Super League competition has no major sponsor, the chairman of Hull KR has decided that he cannot justify losing more of his own money just to rank as a mid-table team, London's crowds are going down not up despite all of the efforts put in to boost the game in the capital, there is no sensible pathway for players to progress to the highest level (dual registration has been a disaster in my opinion) and the fact that a city like Hull has not managed to produce a half back in the last decade is a sad indictment of our junior development.
We can add to all of this that the game's administrators are now discussing how many teams we should have in the Super League competition less than three years since the second round of licenses were granted to have 14 teams in the top division. The majority of clubs are not financially sustainable and some things need to change.
Unless we do something soon we will lose the majority of our best players, we will get to a point when we can't call it a Super League.
Quotes of the week
I will not go on about many of the other mistakes that have been made over the last five years but we have reached the point where a think tank of the best brains in the game is needed to provide the medicine rugby league needs.
It would be neglectful of me to sit quietly and watch the game continue its slide into decline. I know we had a great game between Leeds and Bradford on Maundy Thursday and there was a great crowd to watch Wigan play St Helens on Good Friday, but these are merely papering over the cracks that I see - cracks that are worryingly widening as each week passes.
The growth of rugby union in the UK (which can be measured in several ways, however you want to discuss it) and the lure and attraction of the NRL Down Under (the salary cap is increasing significantly, whereas it hasn't increased significantly here in the last ten years) are a massive challenge to rugby league in this country. Unless we do something soon we will lose the majority of our best players.
We will get to a point when we can't call it Super League.
So being positive, optimistic and pragmatic, what do we do? I do think there is a chance for us to change the way the game is going and the new chairman, Brian Barwick, joins the sport at a pivotal moment. His bold and brave leadership will define the fortunes of the game for the next generation of followers.
I would strongly suggest he listens to the advice of people such as Ian Lenagan, Eamonn McManus and Gary Hetherington.
I also think it would be a good idea to hear from people such as David Waite and others who have a deep understanding of how the game should develop. To me, it make sense to listen to men such as Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock and try to understand what the whole game needs to grow.
There are several examples of clubs and sports turning things around in a three year period but it usually takes a change of direction to pull this off.
Currently we have several clubs struggling which could quite possibly cease to exist. I know this is not exclusive to rugby league, but unlike some other sports we are not big enough to cope with the loss of a couple of clubs.
I know the game has had its dark days before and survived but the landscape has never been as competitive in the UK as it is right now. Competition for pounds and players from many other sports means that there will be some casualties over the next decade. I don't want it to be rugby league.
Ian Roberts says...
As a newcomer to this game (and no football fan) I am surprised at how complicated things are with the league. Top 8 going through etc etc. I think promotion / relegation is a plus given a good sponsor. Going up for a year would then have positive financial incentives/tv figures etc for championship teams. Also the super league winner should be the top award. 27 games proving yourself should mean a lot. A cup match after that If needed to add extra spice including championship teams. But all this requires money and drive from tv which the rfl don't seem to be bothered about.
Posted 22:41 13th November 2013
Bill Partington says...
The game should definately return pro /. Rel my none R/L freinds are astounded when they find out that it does not happen in this game of ours ,Comments whats the point at being top team in a lower div .Also bring back contested scrums ,so that a hooker is a hooker .Also revert players shirt numbers back to when number 1was. f B and 13 was LF and every player was recognised bythe shirt he wore.I also think the game has certainly lost out bigtime with news coverage for all teams other than superleague ,Championshiip results in the Monday morning paper are harder to find than Lord Lucan.The game in game in general requires a massive rethink before its to late.
Posted 22:08 17th August 2013
Ste Houghton says...
Rugby League has been turned into a seven a side game played by thirteen a side. If Sky pulls the plug on a dying game it will be the last straw
Posted 06:06 3rd May 2013
Ian Smith says...
all this talk of increasing the salary cap is fine for the big 5/6 clubs but that does not help the smaller clubs who can not or struggle to reach the salary cap now all this is doing is making the divide even wider than it is now. I am in favour of promotion and relegation as long as clubs and the RL stick to the rules and do not allow teams like wigan who think that it's ok to exceed the salary cap by £222,000 and cheat their way out of relegation (2006) add to that would the RL actually allow Wigan if they did end up being the bottom team in a relegation type of league actually allow them to be relegated or will they say we can not allow a team as big and famous as this to slip into the lower leagues as rugby league needs it's big clubs in the top tier what happens then? as for 10 teams how long before we get fed up of watching the same teams playing all the time
Posted 08:31 22nd April 2013
Don Elwell says...
We can all see what is wrong, but we now need some action to enliven the sport. All Superleague clubs need a loyal fan base in order to survive, with monies raised from ticket sales, merchandise & franchises in the ground. As I'm sure Dr Koukash will soon appreciate if Salford City Reds continue to have only 2000 attending their home games. The play-offs & Grand Final undermine the kudos that comes with winning the League, reducing it to the value of a 'silver hub cap'. Now is the time to be radical... Reduce the size of the Superleague to the number of clubs that can realistically afford it. The next few teams can work with the best of the Championship to form a second tier. Then we can genuinely consider the all important 'promotion & relegation' debate. Make the play-offs a separate competition at the end of the season giving the Superleague winners a place in the final. The 2nd & 3rd, place Superleague teams can compete with the Second Tier League winner and the Challenge Cup winner in a knock out competition for the remaining place in the Play-off Final. Sponsors could then be found for each competition. As merchandising is so important, lets convert the club shops to an RFL/Superleague branded franchise. Centralise ticket sales, maximise the range of merchandise and memorabilia in all branded shops, pool the profits from the sales and devide it across all of the teams in that league. That way the fans will support and promote rugby league as well as their team.
Posted 12:30 16th April 2013
Andy D says...
Sponsorship is one of the main issues here. Every major sport has a major sponsor to prop up the competition. When you look at cricket and the low attendances it achieves, it still attracts big name sponsors to elevate the perceived quality of the competition. I'm not sure if it was the only offer on the table, but the terrible decision to engage (sorry no pun intended) Stobart as an ambassador/sponsor was a massive faux pas. It cheapened the name and image of the competition overnight. And, I spent a year driving up and down motorways without ever seeing Super League adorned on the side of a trailer! Someone else has commented on the quality (and lack of) good advertising and promotion. Bang on. It's inadequate both in terms of quality/excitment and frequency (away from Sky Sports). I am a big RL fan and the World Cup could almost pass me by. I think the academy players coming through are better than ever, especially at my own team - that side of the sport appears in good health. Big name stars going to RU or Oz is a problem of lack of cash. The players deserve far greater salaries than the get. A major sponsor can be used to prop up salaries. We just need to big the sport up more - It is far and away the most exciting to watch.
Posted 12:09 16th April 2013
Patrick Tuohy says...
1. reduce super league to 10 teams so elite players play less games. 2. reduce number of overseas players to two per 17 who are playing any particular game. reduce overseas coaches with their "the aussie way is the best" mentality. 3. do not allow overseas players in positions 1,6,7,9,13. therefore developing our home grown talent in these key positions. 4. reduce prices at matches. if it coasts less more people may attend. 5. scrap 4 nations and go back to touring every 4 years. 6. re think london because it is not working. the game has not spread to that area even though the amateur game is strong. 7. scrap licensing. it clearly does not work. bring back promotion and relegation but have a transfer window that allows clubs vying for promotion the chance to sign top players. 8. get rid of all the loud music that accompanies every try/goal. you cannot hear the crowd roar when their side has scored. and when you are sat in a stadium it becomes very tedious. 9. contested scrums/or scrap them altogether. 10. get people within the rugby league hierachy who actually know what the game is all about.;
Posted 13:35 15th April 2013
Peter Nugent says...
Phil, you are correct in what you say. However, when the football premier league was formed they had a few elite clubs striving to win the league and qualify for the champions league. They also had a handful of clubs playing to avoid relegation. The remainder had very little to play for once they were sure of staying up. Their solution was to award more prize money the higher a team finished in the division. Moreover, promotion and relegation to and from the premier league ensured competitive matches and interest from fans and the media alike. Rugby league is a terrific game and all teams in the super league should have to play hard every week. However, teams like Leeds have done terrific finishing 5th and winning the grand final but that is where the problem lies. They know that they don't have to give their all week in week out as they only have to finish in the top 8 and they can put their all into the playoffs. Teams should need to finish as high as possible and there should be some form of disincentive to finish lower.
Posted 00:17 15th April 2013
David Lea says...
Rugby league has huge problems in advertising itself as exciting. Watch premier sports advertisement for the NRL, its brilliant. Cant remember the last advert I have seen for a game here. Oh yeah apparently we have a world cup going on this year? Not that anyone outside the game would know.
Posted 13:38 14th April 2013
James Mather says...
Here is my suggestion for the structure of the Super League. I would have 10 teams playing 18 rounds. One of the rounds would be The Magic Weekend round at the Etihad Stadium. After 18 rounds, the top team is straight into the Grand Final and the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd playoff to get to the Grand Final. The bottom team is automatically relegated and the teams that finished 8th and 9th play in a survival match. The loser is relegated. The two teams that are promoted from the league below would be the team that finished top at the end of the season and the winner of 2nd v 3rd in a promotion match. I am curious if anyone else likes this suggestion.
Posted 14:36 13th April 2013
Martin Ackroyd says...
oh and eddie saying Leeds are the champions is incorrect thye are the grand final winners ! Wigan are the champions
Posted 11:41 13th April 2013
Andy Mull says...
I agree, this is the best sport by far, Much more exciting that Union, But the game is going soft like in football 20 yrs ago before the invasion of Foreign players there used to hard tackles going in, now if a player breaks wind they get a card and i can see RFL going this way, we have lost the "scrum" we might as well just not bother with it now. Also the more foreign players we bring in the less chance we have in international games (see football). I stopped watching football in the late 1990's due to this invasion and softness. Please don't ruin the sport that i do truly adore and lets make it exciting again get the papers talking about it, RFL get a 10 line postage stamp of the back pages in a couple of news papers. If the press spoke about and publicised us more maybe that would help our cause? "Bring back hard hits" and get our sport noticed..
Posted 08:19 13th April 2013
Gary Hutchinson says...
Possibly the question of falling attendances has something to do with the constant changing of kick off times to accommodate TV schedules. Already this season my team Leeds Rhinos will have four games moved from its traditional Friday nights. The attendance for Sundays game against Warrington was 2,000 down on last seasons Friday fixture.This season Sky may find Monday night Super League is not as popular with supporters as they think. Remember when it introduced last season, supporters had already committed to buying their season tickets. If London are struggling to attract people to games on a weekend how is this going to improve when they play on a Monday night. Sky should have more consideration for the people who support the game and less about those just willing to watch from the comfort of there armchairs.
Posted 15:52 12th April 2013
Michael Oxley says...
I agree with 99% of what Phil Clarke says and a lot of us have seen this coming for a long time. What is really worrying to me in recent years, is people who were die hard fans home and away and would never hear a bad word about rugby league seem to be falling out of love with the game. The main problem seems to be that fans are going to a game not worried or bothered if they lose, as does it really matter as long as your team are positioned in a top 8 place come the end of the season and have a fit enough squad to do themselves justice. The gap between the top 8 clubs and the rest is still big enough so that the elite clubs can man manage their teams through the league matches and make sure they finish high enough to sustain a challenge in the playoffs. We need relegation to come back and also a cup competition like the Regal trophy to run in the midweek so fans can get the enjoyment back of midweek one of rugby league cup matches. If not possible due to logistics then a Yorkshire and Lancashire cup and both winners of their respective cups having a super cup final. The league has become too stale with predictable Friday night and Sunday afternoon games and we need to look at ramping it up with fresh nights and extra cup competitions before even the hardcore of fans start to drift away from the game.
Posted 13:54 12th April 2013
Dave W says...
Phil, everything you say is correct and I think its about time the governing body bring you on board along with other high profile ex players, you like all the fans can see the problems just hope you have some ideas to try to turn things around, but for me 2 teams of 10 with P & R between the divisions is a must and the abolition of the DR.
Posted 13:36 12th April 2013
Steve H says...
One of the big problems as I see it is the self-interest that many SL clubs continue to show which is often to the detriment of both Super League and Rugby League. Acting in the best interest of the game as a whole, who could possibly have sanctioned the recent Stobart sponsorship? I'm actually beginning to think that some comparitively well off clubs voted for that so that it would make things more difficult for less well off clubs. This is the problem. I think some clubs have a permanent eye on other clubs and are constantly worried that they will lose ground to other clubs. And it characterises their entire way of operating. To the detriment of the collective and the game itself. When clubs have the confidence to work together for the game itself and not just for themselves, then we might to get somewhere but I'm not holding my breath.
Posted 13:35 12th April 2013
Adrian Barber says...
Phil Nice article but stating the obvious. We do need action now. There are positives ie Fewer overseas players and coaches than ever before long may this trend continue. Just going back to the old days will not do. We need a two tier super league with 10 teams in each, 1 Pand R between them, more focusssed play off system and some sponsors. The world cup gives us the opportunity to get more people involved in our game, look how new sponsors were found for Salford and Bradford. Out of adversity comes opportunity.
Posted 13:20 12th April 2013
Simon Robinson says...
You are right in much of what you say Phil but how do we solve the problems? The game of rugby league is possibly the most exciting of all ball games so why aren't people watching? I think that there are some fundamental problems but that they can be overcome. The salary cap is a big problem for me. We have some chairman willing to spend their money (oddly you haven't mentioned Dr. Koukash) yet the rules won't let them. The game needs big signings and to retain its talent (will Sam Tomkins be an RL player in 12 months? If he goes to union will it be for the challenge or the money and profile?). The structure of Super League is disastrous. No P&R coupled with a top 8 has created weekly round mediocrity and that's putting it mildly. It is clear that some coaches (Shaun Wane appears to be a notable exception) are targeting which games they want to win and it's obvious that there are some games they couldn't care less about. Hull KR on Easter Monday anyone? Leeds are the masters at doing enough in the weekly rounds and saving themselves for the play offs. As for the top 8, generally, its strange to me that you can lose more than half of your games and still be in a chance of winning Super League at the end of the weekly rounds, come on! I don't buy licensing either, it hasn't worked so P&R should return in some form. I like the Grand Final concept but it should be the elite fighting it out and there should be a heavily weighted incentive to finish in the top two or three. I've wondered if the RFL themselves could over-reach the clubs and offer players direct cash incentives for where their team finishes in the league. We need a weekly battle, 2 points should be regarded as a gold medal. These are just some of my thoughts. Let's not be too negative though because as I said at the start, rugby league is an amazing game and I'm sure that with some changes the trajectory of the game can be changed.
Posted 10:21 12th April 2013
Gutter Fax says...
London....efforts to increase attendances and visibility? Sorry Phil, but whilst I agree regarding getting the business brains involved, London needs to be centrally financed like the storm in the NRL.....for too long they have been allowed to drift and employ the wrong people in the wrong positions. They have done nothing since 2007 other than change their names and blame the local public who haven't EVER been asked to come and watch.....it's not cricket I tell thee......
Posted 06:20 12th April 2013
Frank Hyland says...
First off, whoever decided to mike the referee should be made to slap himself. We must be the only sport where the ref talks over the commentary team, It's so Sunday morning amatuar. Secondly, and most importantly, forming a commitee of none rugby league people is desperately needed to revamp the game, from the time a player joins an amatuar club to when they are first involved with a pro club and beyond. An international competition is vital, it has got to be formulated and persevered with alongside the club game. It's been done before and can be done again.Throw away the mill town attitude and turn the cap back to front. Has anyone done a thorough survey to ask why people have stopped attending games, and what would persuade them to return?
Posted 23:08 11th April 2013