On the 25 year Bastardisation of Rugby League to Appeal To People Who Do Not Love the Game

In 1996 I sat in the restaurant of Stockland Stadium amongst a group of Cowboys foundation members listening to then coach Graham Lowe talk about the season ahead.

I remember it for what Lowe said, which was, to paraphrase: “There have been a lot of rule changes made to speed up the game. I don’t like them. I don’t agree with them. I believe it will change the game and not for the better. But I have to coach for those changes and that is what I will do.”

Lowe did do just that, and even though the Cowboys took time to find their feet, they soon unearthed a superstar excitement machine in the name of Matty Bowen who together with Aaron Pane in dummy half revolutionised the speeding up of the game, or the ‘touch footballification’ of rugby league.

Before the 2021 season started I told my family how I struggled at times to maintain my interest in rugby league, that the DNA of the game had been lost in the speeding up of the game. That ‘athletes’ now play, not necessarily ‘footballers’, and that many forwards can play any position in the forward ‘pack’ (barely worth that description any more) or indeed any position on the field outside of the specialist roles that make up the ‘spine’.

It was nothing new for my family to hear my protestations, and my wife has heard me saying it even before Graham Lowe admitted aloud his own fears.

I have said all along that the commercialisation of the game, which players and ex-players still closely involved in the game have been complicit in because it has afforded them higher and higher incomes from the gravy train, has been to attract those with a marginal interest in the game to expand viewership at the expense of those who grew up loving the game. The way that has been achieved has been to make it faster with more flashy tries, enabling more advertising opportunities, so that it now more closely resembles touch football than the rugby league game of the late 80s/early 90s which I personally consider the pinnacle of the game of rugby league.

So at the start of this season, knowing that the rule changes again were going to speed up the game even more, e.g. the continuous tackle count reset, whilst grumbling more to the family about it all I thought to myself that I would like to see an experiment done at the end of the year. 

It would be really interesting to see a game refereed under the conditions that prevailed in the late 80s/early 90s with 4 reserves and thus only 4 replacements allowed in the whole match (though thought would be need to be given to how HIA would be dealt with), 5m rule instead of 10m (that was in reality set at around 7-8m), and more latitude to defenders to stay on the tackled player especially when they were dominant.

I will say it loudly – actually I am going to say it how I really feel – I HATE THAT IN RUGBY LEAGUE NOW A GAME GOES FROM END TO END IN THE FIRST 10 MINUTES WITH UNCREATIVE, ONE-OUT RUNNING! I dislike that in rugby league an attacking player with the ball will jump on the ground to get a quick play the ball, resembling in touch football how an attacker will touch the defender to enable a play the ball – this is anathema to our game! 

When is the last time you heard about the ‘softening up’ period of a game when the big, strong, powerful forwards went at each other to wear each other down so that the game would open up in the latter stages of each half? And note, the softening up period did not relate to cheap shot thuggery.

When is the last time you witnessed a genuine ‘arm wrestle’? Instead we have games where you know that a side will need to score at least 5 tries to win because the opposition is almost certain to score at least 4 tries.

Real rugby league fans of yesteryear enjoyed games where no tries were scored as much as games where each side scored plenty, but we are denied of those genuine arm wrestles because it is not the ‘commercial product’ that is sort.

For years I have thought about writing something like this but never did – who do you send it to – the media that has been central to the bastardry? 

But something has really gotten my goat this past fortnight. Listening to the ex-players in the media go on NOW about the loss of ‘their game’ – how they’re ‘fans’ of the game, too.

What I want to know is where have they been for the past 20 years?

The only thing that has changed in the last few weeks has been the cracking down on contact with the head, and now they want to say that accepting that head contact happens in the game is the critical element that separates league from touch football.

Give me a break!

These guys are proving the need for the changes with every word they say – they’ve all had too many head knocks to be able to see the logic before them. Then again, there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see, and dollars have always provided a lot of incentive to not see.

The problem is not clamping down on contact with the head. Any and all efforts to reduce the risk of long term damage to the health of players which can seriously impair their ability to lead full and healthy lives once they have retired from playing the game should be supported without question.

The real problem is in the speeding up of the game so that collisions are faster and more powerful for most of the game (even as those who have not been interchanged for a while fatigue), and coaches are continually striving to counteract the speed of play so players are taught to tackle high around the ball leaving an impossibly small margin of error which goes awry for any number of reasons (especially change in position of attacking player so their head position/centre of gravity changes abruptly). 

So I say this to all ex-players with a voice. If you really love the game as you say you do, then you will start to speak up to ensure that the real issue is addressed. Everybody who loves a sport should want the players of that sport protected – no State of Origin or Premiership win is worth long term damage to the health of any of the players, even if we must accept (as we all do through our lives) that accidents will happen from time to time. 

Matty Bowen would always have been an excitement machine in rugby league no matter what era he played in because of his elusive footwork and blistering acceleration. But I wonder whether Wally Lewis, my all-time football hero, would have had anywhere near the impact he did if he played over the last 20 years. Think about that for a moment…

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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