Friday, 26 October 2012

Code13 Archive: Lewis Left a Weak Legacy for Rugby League

 Some more from the Code13 archive here. It's fair to say that the Rugby Football League didn't like this article...

Richard Lewis has now been gone from rugby league a while, but it seems fitting as the season nears its end to look at the legacy he left behind, and what that signifies for the sport as a whole.


As Bryn Hargreaves confirms he’s leaving Bradford Bulls and the game for a more secure way of making a living, one has to ask fundamental questions about the commercial strength of the sport as Lewis has left it.

We are now in a position where almost every club in the Super League lives, in some way, beyond their means. Club chiefs like Neil Hudgell at Hull Kingston Rovers hint that they are only a whisker away from financial doom. While the RFL seems comfortably solvent, most clubs do not.

Maybe there has been too much focus on moving commercial operations to London and chasing Sport England funding. Whatever the reality, things are not working and we, as a sport, are far too reliant on Sky cash.

What also struck many observers as strange was how in an article celebrating 20 years of Sky coverage, Richard Lewis chose to highlight how supposedly bad the sport was 20 years ago. He used the piece not to celebrate our heritage, but to state that the game 20 years ago was dull and ruined by bad pitches and weather.

It remains unclear just how much rugby league Lewis watched before he took over at the RFL, but he certainly was not describing a game most of us watched and loved, which was thrilling, aggressive and fast long before we played in summer.

To use an opportunity in the national media to blow your own trumpet about how summer rugby had made a poor sport great was an insult of the most unthinking and wooden headed kind.

Little wonder than that a sponsorship deal was negotiated for which no money changed hands. That is surely one of the most damning indictments of a commercial and administrative hierarchy ever in sport.


People outside the rugby league heartlands in this country, especially in soccer towns, often believe that there is only one kind of rugby and that is rugby union.

We all agree that internationals are the biggest tool we have in creating genuine expansion, so why has our international game gone massively, massively backwards while union sweeps up in the wider awareness stakes?

Many will indicate the changing of the Great Britain team. Having an England team may have been a decision motivated by enthusing the kind of people who watch the odd game of sport on telly because “England are playing”, but it did nothing for expansion.

When rugby league was riding a wave of general popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, it was in large part due to Welshmen like Jonathan Davies and Scots like Alan Tait playing for Great Britain.

Now Welsh stars can play for a largely part-time Wales team which may have a chance of beating England in a decade or so. No Great Britain tour to inspire passion and aspire to. The situation for players in Ireland is worse, while Scotland seems to have been forgotten about by the game’s hierarchy entirely.

Indeed, there is now a real possibility that should a player from the Celtic countries ever become good enough to play in the NRL (admittedly unlikely as things currently stand), the temptations of qualifying for Australia or New Zealand on residence should not be discounted.

There are no tours either. These were not just exciting international series which grabbed the imagination, but also allowed second string players to develop.

While a full-on tour is probably not practical any more, a test series with a couple of midweek games is. The Tri-Nations was not a bad idea, but the Four Nations has become uninspiring and often insipid, with no momentum building and often precious little passion from the fans for it.

Interestingly, Lewis left the Lawn Tennis Association largely because Great Britain lost their Davies Cup ‘World Status’ and were downgraded to ‘Euro-African Zone’.

The weakness of our international product is not helped by the often obstructionist tactics of the NRL either, but that is another story for another day.

The new era at the RFL must see stronger awareness of the sport’s true heritage, and a more aggressive attitude adopted towards negotiating with the NRL power barons who shape the destiny of the international game.


Most rugby league people can agree that expansion as it stands is not going too well. While there have been some significant strides at local levels, at the top level, fewer people than ever outside the heartlands go and watch rugby league.

Undoubtedly, the recession has played a major part in this, but too many expansion projects were built on sand during the Lewis era.

There seemed to be a naive ‘build and they will come’ mentality, which often appears to inform a lot of thinking in this sport.

People may point to Catalans Dragons, but French Catalonia is as much as heartland of rugby league as Cumbria. It was the region which produced the legendary Puig Aubert after all, and he played nearly 60 years ago, so it was hardly virgin territory to begin with.

Wales now has no Super League team at all, which is laughable considering how popular the game continues to be there.

Perhaps the signs were there. It is not, after all, as though tennis, where Richard Lewis cut his administration teeth,  has spread much beyond its traditional demographic either. Interestingly, tennis champion Andy Murray thrived outside the traditional system in the UK, something we see some of our talent now doing in the NRL, or rugby union.

There was also a lack of awareness of real success stories like Sheffield due to little sensitivity towards circumstances on the ground. The fact that little attention seemed to be paid to Cumbria also galls.

Grassroots summer rugby seemed to be intended for dual rugby clubs in the south, and has confused and discouraged many clubs in the north. It looked like a managerial, top down decision, which was made with little actual assessment of what it would it do in communities where rugby league is well-established.

The impression of technocrats imposing structures from above may not have been correct, but it was certainly how a lot of people felt.

What is clear as Nigel Wood takes over is that a new era is dawning. Quite what it will bring remains to be seen, but hopefully in cash strapped times we can continue to produce some of the greatest sporting entertainment going on the pitch.

Richard Lewis, though, certainly looked a lot happier dishing out trophies at Wimbledon this summer than he ever did at Old Trafford or Wembley.

Originally published at:

Zack Wilson is the author of novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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