The Roaring 2020s: How will history judge rugby league’s decisions during this crisis?


THE hardest time to look at history objectively is when you’re in the middle of it.

One of the more twee and dismissive things your correspondent told friends about his move to the UK at age 49 was that in Australia you felt like a spectator to history while in the UK you were part of it.

Be careful what you wish for.

After three years of terrorist attacks, Brexit and now coronavirus I am longing for the bleachers on the beaches. Perhaps in Vanuatu or St Helena I could still turn history off after an entertaining day’s viewing and go to the pub

But for a while, the northern hemisphere seemed the place to be for a front row seat in rugby league history, at least

Nothing as bonkers as the Toronto Wolfpack exists in Australasia, for all the NRL’s (now underplayed) rivers of gold. New York and Ottawa are coming too. Because it was small and comparatively impoverished, the game in the UK was ripe for change – recalcitrant clubs notwithstanding.

It felt exciting and enervating to witness it at close quarters.

But as the coronavirus crisis worsens, it’s once more the Australians who are being the boldest, so far continuing the tradition started when league played through the First World War and the Spanish Flu while other sports stopped.

The Brits gave it a shot, playing for a weekend longer than everyone else here before government advice led to a shut-down yesterday. That impoverishment means they can’t afford to play behind closed doors like the Aussies and Kiwis can – not least because only two games a week were televised in the first place and if a front rower falls in the Jungle and no-one is there to see it….?

If you lived in Sydney during World War I, it’s entirely possible that you would have disagreed with the decision of the leaguies to play on. The code was new at the time but the historian Dr Ross McMullin disputes the popular rugby union narrative the the 13-man game only took over there because the rahrahs fought for queen and country and the mungos were, well, cowards.

“Rugby league was already more popular before the war,” said the Victorian academic said at the Tom Brock lecture in 2015.

(As an aside in Melbourne the Irish Catholic VFL clubs played on and the Anglo suburbs stopped. Fitzroy therefore guaranteed themselves a place in sports trivia history by finishing last in 1916 – and winning the comp in the same year!)

Going back to a couple of sentences ago, there is an important distinction. The mainstream history of Australia has forgotten what rugby league did in the war years, what sports stopped and what sports continued.

Against the backdrop of a global war that killed 40 million, such matters were indeed trivial.

Only the history of rugby league (and perhaps Australian rugby union) remembers.

In England, some professional clubs will struggle to survive there being no games into April and May. No doubt government assistance will be sought, although suggesting the clubs are being shuttered because of government advice and therefore the government OWES the clubs money – as Hull FC owner Adam Pearson – has, is more than a trifle heavy handed.

The journalist, publisher and author Phil Caplan said on a the Forty20 Live show last night that British rugby league needs change and rationalisation and that if this crisis ushers in such dramatic change, it won’t necessarily be a bad thing.

What is that heartless hashtag the millennials are using for Covid-19? #boomerremover? How about #oldclubfoldup as a similarly cold-hearted rugby league equivalent?

The NRL, meanwhile, has apparently seen an opportunity like that bloke who tried to flog 17,000 bottles of hand sanitiser on Amazon. It’s reportedly opened talks with ESPN to fill holes in the US TV schedule left vacant by American pro sports.

Again: an important distinction. An opportunity seen in business where no-one suffers is not the same as price-gouging a 70-year-old granny.

I don’t know if John F Kennedy was making things up when he said the Chinese symbol for crisis is one brush stroke for “danger” and one for “opportunity” but it makes a lot of sense.

In the end, there will be a realignment in many industries during the next few months. At the moment, rugby league in Britain looks likely to come out the other side in the same place on the pecking order for the sports industry – or lower.

If someone could whisk away all the teams to a secure location (say, the Isle Of Man?) and play on with all matches shown on Sky, rugby league in Britain could climb the ladder massively while other sports snooze.

But it can’t afford to do that.

Rugby league in Australia, based on the evidence of the last few days, looks like climbing the pecking order during this troubled time. Despite Peter V’Landys telegraphing a request for government money, it can afford to shift the whole comp to Townsville, Darwin or New Zealand and keep going.

Perhaps that is a terrible idea and all matches should have been stopped. The impact on players and their families is a different column. But in times of disaster, it’s hard to remember a sport ever being blamed for making things worse.

On the other hand, sport is often credited for making life better.

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