Thursday, 18 October 2012

RFL insists it's helping Scottish Rugby League: So why the fixture foul-up?

The recent news that the Edinburgh Eagles Rugby League Club would not be entering the 2013 Challenge Cup after all came as something of a blow, I'm sure, to many of us who want to see Scotland develop a competitive rugby league structure North of the Border.

The ridiculous intransigence of the game's governing body is refusing to allow them to re-arrange fixtures so that their Scotland internationals could play for them in the Cup looks vindictively bureaucratic from this distance.

First round fixtures which would normally be held in January are being held at the end of October instead. When the Scotland national team is playing an international against the England Knights.

"We are disappointed to announce that we are unable to enter the Carnegie Challenge Cup 2013," a statement from the Edinburgh Eagles reads.

"The Rugby Football League has changed the normal start date for the preliminary rounds (and) Eagles are currently being represented on the professional international stage by Dave Vernon, Craig Borthwick, Tom Murray and Callum 

"The RFL have not allowed any flexibility in the dates for this fixture even though there is a representative match 
acknowledged by the governing body.

"We are therefore unable to enter the competition with a squad capable of competing.

"We feel that the RFL has let the club down as we look to develop and attract the quality players in the Edinburgh area to play rugby league."

When pressed about the game in Scotland, the RFL will tell you that there are three full-time development officers working there now. Three more than there were in 1995. Well, there's a massive cause for celebration.

Again, it looks like the RFL have not done their research, certainly not about Scotland and how to fire a passion for rugby league there.

No English person will ever understand how much fitba means to Scots. It dominates the national debate and cultural sphere as much as the sporting sphere. It dwarfs other sports in terms of the coverage it receives, even more so than in England. Only someone from maybe Liverpool or the North East of England could possibly understand just how much the game is fixed in Scottish identity.

This means that rugby league is working with a very difficult set of circumstances. Games like shinty probably have a higher profile than rugby league.

Rugby union has some kind of profile, because the Scottish national team, traditionally composed of Borderers and posh boys from Edinburgh private schools, has managed some degree of relative success.

But the current team is stocked with heritage players from England and elsewhere in the world, with few genuinely working-class players pulling on the Dark Blue these days.

Rugby is perceived in Scotland as a middle-class sport, something not really 'for us'.

Good work has been done in the Glasgow area in particular, but the game up in Scotland has to peddle incredibly fast just to stop going backwards.

Anyone who looked at the Scotland squad for the weekend's home defeat by Ireland at Meggetland in Edinburgh will have noticed how many amateur players there were present.

When it comes to Scotland having a competitive team at the 2013 World Cup, it does not look good. The fact that they will play their World Cup games in Cumbria and Salford is also unlikely to fire the imagination of many Scots.

Ireland have a game in Limerick, so why can't Scotland have a game in Scotland. Somewhere like St Mirren Stadium in Paisley would surely be adequate, with good facilities and small stands that will look less empty on television.

There is a serious risk of choking off Scotland's supply of rugby league internationals too. It's an old theme, but the removal of the Great Britain team as the top of the international pyramid was a serious blow to the game in Scotland.

A team consisting of heritage players which is successful can do much to raise the profile of a sport. Just ask Jack Charlton and the Football Association of Ireland.

English-born players from rugby league backgrounds could play for Scotland and help to develop the game, when they knew that they could still turn out for Great Britain.

Now, if you want to have any chance at all of being in a competitive team to play Australia and New Zealand, you have to declare for England.

This process will not be limited to Scots either. Rhys Evans, one of the most promising players to come from Wales in recent years, has already declared for England.

The England coach has also poached players from other countries, like Scotland, making it harder to develop a team for a tournament. Some though, like Dale Ferguson, have returned to the Scottish fold from England, making a mockery of eligibility rules.

Just wait until the day that Scotland produces an NRL level player. He will not be playing for Scotland when the time comes, but opting to play State of Origin or for the Kiwis.

So what can be done?

Restore the Great Britain team for a start. It's part of our game's heritage and should be there as a pinnacle for all British and Irish-born players to aspire to.

Then, you can have a ready-made 'Origin' series with a British championship, in which players play fo birth or heritage countries, keeping the quality level high and helping players to stake a claim for Great Britain places.

This creates a natural pyramid which will help our players better compete with the Southern Hemisphere teams by hardening them up in meaningful international games. It would form a stepping stone to test footy in the same way that State of Origin is meant to.

It also means that Celtic born players can represent their countries and still have a chance to take on the Aussies and Kiwis on a relatively more level playing field. They will then build a bigger personal profile, which can then be used to build a bigger profile for the game as a whole.

The profile of rugby league would also be raised in the Celtic countries by having a competitive British international championship to watch.

And at the end of the season, we could all look forward to a good three-game test series against the Kangaroos or Kiwis, with Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England providing tough midweek opposition for touring teams.

The chances of anything changing soon internationally look low though. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the way things are currently done amongst fans, there seems no real will to change at the highest level, with the Australian authorities in particular guilty of obstructing much of the progress which could be made with some constructive and less soilpsistic dialogue.

The current international set-up rewards complacency and makes the game look directionless and amateur.

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

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