What Does it Take for Change to Happen?

Two things have caught the eye in recent weeks about Rugby League; neither of them positive. Firstly the shambolic state of the licensing system which has been highlighted not only by the catastrophe at Odsal, but the results in the Challenge Cup. Secondly the inconsistency within the disciplinary system is yet another kick in the teeth for our potentially great sport. Therefore the real question is why the RFL continues to be the laughing stock of the game, yet is allowed to continue to make a mess of their affairs just as the board at Bradford has.

“The aim is to achieve consistency and continuity by giving clubs the chance to make long-term decisions in an effort to raise standards of the game in this country. The criteria for licences will be based on stadium facilities, finance and business performance, commercial and marketing and playing strength, including junior production and development.”

These words were the main points made by the RFL in the unveiling of the license system back in 2008 and as usual, most fans foolishly believed in them. Only twice since the introduction of this system have we seen a non-Super League side beat the elite. Whilst this does in fact show the system to have improved the quality of Super League teams, indeed within the league various teams have improved dramatically as a result of this security, it has greatly damaged those clubs outside Super League who now only have a need to achieve any set targets in the year franchises are given out (although there seems little point in trying given the survival of Wakefield last year.)

The proof of the damage done to lesser teams comes in the form of 2012’s addition to Super League; the Widnes Vikings. By giving them three years to improve, there is a strong their so-far dreadful record may well be resolved, but then, if all 14 teams meet the criteria to a better level than the best Championship side there is no opportunity of those outside the elite progressing. What’s more, it is clear from some of the pastings Widnes have taken just how big the gap now is between the top and the bottom sides, in particular as 19 of last season’s squad were released after being considered inadequate for Super League. Evidently, while the franchise system benefits teams while they are in Super League, for the majority – the teams outside of Super League, there are no obvious pluses.

For the second point, read closely the section where finances are mentioned. From what I can work out this means a strong financial setup is required, not a business model such as Bradford’s, which is now on the brink of destruction. As much as I, like any true rugby fan, do not want to see the Bulls fall, there has to be some questions as to how on earth this went through what you would hope is a highly thorough process. The sale of their stadium shows there to have been some signs of this before it all blew up, particularly with the Iestyn Harris saga which cost them a cool couple of million; something that must have been blatantly ignored. There have been suggestions that the governing body should take more control, however this is disputable, as just like any other business, they should be able to look after their own affairs.

Evidently, these questions should be addressed in the future, but the main focus right now should be saving the Bulls. As far as the RFL is concerned though, there should be some serious questioning regarding the awarding of a new licence to Bradford, who have reached this stage within ten games of the new season, and to a lesser extent, Wakefield given their fall into administration during the last set of franchises. Such issues bring the game into disrepute and people are now starting to question whether the the licensing system should be either scrapped or actually properly applied without any lenience. Bare in mind Bradford were awarded a grade B licence after being described as having a “good operating structure/governance in place”.

To move onto the other matter in question, it seems disciplinary issues are yet another matter that are not dealt with properly, regardless of the opinions of more highly regarded, yet perhaps more moronic writers, such as Phil Clarke. Recently, Ryan Bailey was banned for three matches simply for pushing an official out of his way. Whether this action was necessary or not is irrelevant, however this was a measly offence which has been treated ridiculously harshly. Obviously the officials demand a certain degree of respect and have an incredibly difficult job to do, yet this just seems incomprehensible. It is far from the first time Super League players and coaches have received astonishingly strong punishments for their criticism of referees, namely Richard Agar and Keith Senior. This matter of RFL officials being literally untouchable has gone too far.

Although some would point to the ban received by Thierry Alibert as contradictory to this, as far as I’m concerned, it simply rubs salt into the wound. He was dropped for just one game for allowing tries on the seventh tackle, of which, the first time was a game winning moment. What’s more, the fact this wasn’t revealed until after the game, and presumably because some on-the-ball fans had noticed his absence, adds to the absurdity of this. It is highly debatable as to whether this is a far lesser offence than a small shove which caused no harm to the person involved. The RFL can defend referees for being unable to be spot on every time, however the same can be said for players, although Bailey’s disciplinary record is hardly desirable. Surely they should therefore be judged to at least similar standards, particularly as this is from the first dreadful mistake made by Thierry Alibert, let alone referees.

However the double standards don’t just exist for our referees, as shown by comparing Bailey’s ‘offence’ to that of Heath L’Estrange and Rangi Chase in recent weeks. L’Estrange’s horror spear tackle is best summed up by his victim Jamie Peacock’s twitter rant: “I just want to get this into perspective…Bails (Ryan Bailey) gets 3 match’s for pushing a ref so he can make a tackle, I nearly break my neck and a 2 match ban is adequate..” Anyone playing the sport will have seen their fair share of bad challenges, but most people recognise that the spear tackle is by far the most dangerous. I do not believe for one second any damage was intended on L’Estrange’s part, but the potentially serious nature of this challenge deserves a hefty punishment, certainly more than one received for a minor push. Although these things can be overlooked during the run of play, referees seem unwilling to punish even the most cynical offences on the pitch these days, or in this case, just send off the wrong man.

As the saying goes ‘once is an accident, twice is just careless.’ To see Rangi Chase receive the same length of ban as Bailey for breaking an opponent’s jaw (a crime which would see him go to jail if it wasn’t on the rugby pitch) was therefore rather astounding. The RFL are always going to protect their own which at least makes Bailey’s ban explainable, however Chase’s ban is little more than an inconvenience – apart from the fact Cas have few other players capable of doing anything with the ball. While Phil Clarke keeps his blinkers on and believes everything is rosy in the sport largely funded by his employers, this does not seem the case, as inconsistency appears rife in the very core of the game.

Nothing is ever perfect in life and to some extent this fact has to be accepted in Rugby League, yet this doesn’t make these bitter pills any easier to swallow; just ask any Bradford fan who had to shell out by pledging. However the RFL seems about as willing to resolve such matters as Steve Menzies is to retire, therefore we can only hope with a new CEO, the RFL may perhaps take a good hard look at itself. Or is that too much to hope for?

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