Discord: Signs of illness


By STEVE MASCORD

BRITISH rugby league folk are actually pretty tolerant of outsiders coming in and telling them what they’re doing wrong.
Maybe it’s that northern good humour, or the national stiff upper lip, or the fact that their team hasn’t beaten the side from the same country as most of the critics in a series for two years shy of half a century.
But this columnist rarely encounters personal attacks where these issues are discussed on social media.
Whether it’s expansion or governance or media scrutiny, general speaking the debates stick to the issues and don’t dwell on me being a dreadful middle-aged Aussie know-it-all.
I know that other communities would not be as tolerant – and I know for certain that if the roles were reversed and I were a Brit trying to tell the NRL what it could do better, I would be constantly reminded of my nationality.
That said, there have been a couple of events over the past 24 hours which have highlighted the differences between the game in the southern hemisphere and the northern; circumstances the Aussie game arguably handles better.
On Thursday night, Hull FC were beaten 38-4 at home by Warrington, leaving them with a 3-4 record for the year so far.
When it came the time of Hull coach Lee Radford to be interviewed on the field after full-time on Sky Sports, he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, owner Adam Pearson fronted up to the interview and told an international TV audience that he had, basically, sacked Radford in the short period that had elapsed since the bell.
To everyone bar Pearson and Radford, this was a sacking occurring in real time on live TV. The statement that a coach has been sacked, along with his contractual arrangements, form part of the process of dismissal.
This would never happen in the NRL.
St George Illawarra’s Paul McGregor is regarded as the coach under most pressure this season. I would argue that even if he is 0-7 and got involved in a fight with a board member after the seventh loss, he would still not be sacked on the spot at full-time without the players being informed.
Would Russell Crowe sack Wayne Bennett this way? Imagine him going on Channel Nine and doing an interview like this after a match.
In the NRL where clubs are sizeable businesses, there are subcommittees and recommendations and presentations and player interviews to be conducted before these decisions are taken.
Carefully worded statements are prepared, players are informed, media conferences are called.
If you want to know why this happens in England, consider this: big stars like Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau, James Maloney, Gareth Widdop and the rest play each weekend in front of 10,000 or fewer people and in four out of six instances, the games are not even televised.
Many of the clubs are based in economically depressed towns.
How can they pay a salary cap half that of the NRL’s? Because most of the top flight clubs are bankrolled by wealthy local individuals such as Pearson.
The organisations can therefore become fiefdoms with with little filter between fans holding up a “Radford Out” sign and an owner who has stuck up for the coach until now but can bear no more after a heavy defeat.
It’s a giant pantomime, playing to a gallery that buys a season ticket with automatic bank deductions, a home shirt at the first game and then just shows up every second week to vent or cheer.
The owner is cast in the role of fan-in-chief. The board of directors, the sponsors, the national media … they don’t have to be considered.
Perhaps this pantomime is more entertaining than the anodyne, image-conscious, govern-by-committee NRL. Colourful owners and the ritual of their managers getting the bullet at any time is part of the fabric of British professional sport.
But it underscores how small the world of English rugby league is. With this Shakespearean royal court intrigue comes a strong whiff of provincialism – the same thing one smells when chairmen and owners snipe at each other and at head office in their programme notes (another tradition that has never existed in Australia).
“Head office” …. that brings us to the second event of the last 24 hours that would surprise Antipodean readers.
Leeds today announced that since one player with coronavirus like symptoms was self-isolating, they would not travel to Perpignan to fulfil Saturday’s fixture against Catalans, which was already being played behind closed doors.
That’s right, Leeds announced it.
Not Super League. Not the Rugby Football League. Just like Wigan a couple of years ago cancelling a match following the World Club Challenge. The equivalent would have been Brisbane just saying they weren’t travelling to Townsville, thanks very much.
No-one is disputing coronavirus is serious, or that overseas travel is hazardous at the moment. But in other sports, governing bodies are acting after advice from governments. That doesn’t happen in British rugby league sometimes because the clubs run the competition.
Super League’s board is just a collection of the wealthy owners of the clubs, who got involved because they wanted to see their clubs win trophies.
Individuals of means don’t always show the same discretion with a team they’ve followed their whole lives as they would show in their own businesses.
And their clubs – bound by self-interests (and fiduciary duty!) – don’t always make the best long term decisions for the sport they play.
When the current health crisis is over, these afflictions will remain.
And as the world goes crazy, we’ve just seen a couple of telling symptoms.

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