An open letter from Brian Barwick
This week’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ in League Express with Martyn Sadler was a tough piece to read if you were sitting in Red Hall as once again all the responsibility for the current perceived ills in the game were dropped on our doorstep.
I actually caught up with the piece on Tuesday morning after spending the previous evening watching Sky Sports’ excellent coverage of a rib-tickling derby match between St Helens and Wigan.
The weather was red hot and occasionally the action white hot and Joe Greenwood’s burst for home was as invigorating as Pat Richards’s drop-kick was gob-smacking.
But Martyn’s piece brought me back down to earth with a bump. Using the Yorkshire Evening Post Pete Smith’s surprisingly gloomy view of Rugby League’s future as the basis for his weekly column, he had added his own sixpennorth. It was equally downbeat and fired off salvos of dismay Red Hall’s way.
Firstly, let me underline both these gentlemen know more about Rugby League than I ever will and, of course, are totally entitled to express their opinion.
But forgive me if I don’t share their grim view of Rugby League’s future or their apportioning all the blame in the RFL’s direction.
Given my own genuine and not inconsiderable experience at the top of another major sport, I am quite used to the governing body being the clearing house for everybody’s gripes and groans – it comes with the territory. Sometimes fair, sometimes not, but all part of the game.
I am coming up to the end of my first six months in the sport, having enjoyed it from arm’s length for the past half-century. And it wouldn’t be ‘breaking news’ to suggest everything in the game isn’t perfect. It never will be.
So what’s my take on the game?
On the field, the action can be absolutely electric, speed of thought and speed of movement comparable to any other sport around. Super League throws up some classic competitive contests on a weekly basis, as does the Championship and Championship One. And it makes for cracking television. But there are other matches where the points differential at the end of the game illustrates an imbalance in resource, strength in depth and quality.
The Super League currently has 14 clubs and they represent a range of expectations and ambitions: some financially flourishing, some financially holding their own and some financially struggling, temporarily or otherwise.
For me, it is akin to a plate-spinning exercise where rarely, if ever, are all the plates sailing around securely on their pivot at the same time. Rugby League is not on its own in this space, by the way.
I’ve joined the RFL as it sets about trying to re-structure the game’s competitions and create a sport which is compelling at every level and that allows well-run clubs to succeed and thrive.
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t some type of board game the RFL Executive are playing to fill in their working hours, but a serious and considered attempt to help the game go forward as one.
Of course, it will come in for some heavy artillery fire from both inside and outside the game – and so it should. But ultimately the final position has to be robust, sensible and commercially attractive from top to bottom.
Although being innovative suddenly seems to have become a ‘dirty’ word in our sport, I’ll settle for my sport being innovative – but not every two minutes.
And I am particularly supportive of a committed and knowledgeable team of Executives and officers at the RFL which continues to work tirelessly to deliver in the wider interests of the whole game.
Money is tight, both in our sport and in the daily lives of many of our valued supporters, and we are working hard to land top-class sponsors to aid the sport’s growth. It is proving tough but we are confident of making some significant headway in due course and are conscious of the need to do it.
One thing’s for certain: talking the game down isn’t helpful.
We remain totally committed to raising as much commercial revenue as possible, and I personally now lead a marketing and media group whose aim is to further position the sport in a more positive and powerful way.
My background in newspapers, television and sports administration brings with it lots of transferable skills. I can assure you that I have already spent many hours meeting some great Rugby League people (including journalists!) and getting under the skin of this sport – and look forward to meeting plenty more in the future.
My journey so far has taken me from the international scene and a fantastic insight into the commitment and focus within the England camp, through all the professional ranks and to the Community Board, which is doing so much good at grassroots level.
And my favourite moment so far? That’s easy: being in the Medway Sports Centre a fortnight ago and watching England and France fight it out in the Wheelchair Final in the RFL’s inspiring Festival of World Cups.
Of course, any major sport is never all about good news, and we should always accept being held to account. I do, and so do the people who work around me.
But the bottom line for them, and for me, is to help Rugby League flourish, to think outwards not inwards, and to not be put off our stride in this pivotal year.
With the start of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup now in sight, the sport has everything to gain and much to celebrate: that will be my focus. It’s a shame others may think differently.