Posted on August 25, 2012

You would think that of all the football codes, the one that would put the interests of its professional players at the top of the game would be rugby league – after all, unlike every other sport, it only came into existence at all as a means to provide fairer treatment for the men who provide us with our weekly football thrills.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

Jersey Flegg, who was Easts’ first captain and went on to be Australian Rugby League president until 1960, is quoted as saying: “When the game was founded in 1908 its first principle was that the players must come first.” Any reading of the events of that period will confirm that view.

History tells us that once a dominant code begins to lose star players (and then fans) it is practically impossible to gain that support back. In the mid-1880s northern England was the heartland of English rugby, with soccer a very distant second. However, for a decade the Rugby Football Union (RFU) rejected calls to pay players and to improve the game as a spectacle – by the time clubs broke away to form rugby league, soccer had long since claimed many northern cities, including Manchester.

It took just three years for rugby league to grow from secret meetings among disgruntled footballers into a rival code that completely overran rugby union in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane. The key ingredient for keeping ownership of a territory, or making ground in a new one, is expediency – to do what is for the greater good of those who play it, even if it is unfair to others.

The AFL is being expedient by ignoring its salary cap and draft – giving advantages to teams in the northern states, and by bolstering the money put up to sign to Karmichael Hunt and potentially Israel Folau. The ARU is kicking in $100,000 to help the Melbourne Rebels in their pitch to Folau. NRL clubs have to fight individually on behalf of their code.

In Britain, rugby union stopped league’s advances southward in the early 1900s by turning a blind eye to blatant acts of professionalism committed by its clubs in Leicester, Coventry and Wales – issuing bans would have handed clubs, players and new territory to rugby league.

Had the RFU stuck rigidly to being fair and equitable, it arguably would have vanished before World War I.

In the 1930s when Sydney rugby league clubs were losing players to country towns, Queensland and England, the NSWRL devised a ”Players Retention Fund” that squirreled away money from gate-takings and then used it to provide contracts for individual players thought vital to the code.

The terms of these special deals were kept secret, and clearly benefited some players and clubs.  In 1936 when Jersey Flegg (NSWRL
President) was asked about the terms of the deal he had struck with Easts star Dave Brown to convince him to reject offers from England.
Flegg stone-walled, unashamedly stating “They are locked in a safe.” The Brown-led Roosters ended the 1936 season unbeaten premiers.

Tinkering around the edges of the 2011 salary cap, or deciding to keep the status quo until the next television deal in 2013, will result in rugby league losing ground to other codes. Trying to win that back will take time and more money, and may never succeed.

It is obvious to all that the AFL is making one epic attempt to gain significant support in the northern states. Should it succeed, rugby league will have a formidable opponent for the rest of its existence. Should the AFL fail, then rugby league can enjoy a life relatively free of competition. Tactically, the best opportunity rugby league has to quell and dissuade the AFL’s ambition is here and now, by ensuring the NRL is the most compelling and star-blessed competition it can be.

History will judge just how an important time and opportunity 2010 is for the game. By trying to be fair to every NRL club and waiting until 2013 to mount a NRL revival is a chance the game cannot afford to take. Future generations of rugby league seem destined to look back upon 2010 and ask, “Why weren’t the game’s leaders more expedient in their actions?”

[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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