Brian Barwick: Rugby Football League gets a chairman who says the unthinkable
Brian Barwick, the new boss of the RFL, tells Dave Hadfield he wouldn't mind a Super League with no London club
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Monday 17 June 2013
He was at Craven Cottage in 1980 for the first rugby league match played by Fulham but Brian Barwick is quite prepared to contemplate a future Super League without a London presence.
Barwick, recently appointed chairman of the Rugby Football League, is a neighbour of Fulham's successors, the London Broncos, in Twickenham, goes to matches there and desperately wants to see them succeed. But, in his first major newspaper interview since taking his new job, he is prepared to say the unsayable: Super League might be better off without them.
"I don't think it would be the ultimate withdrawal if it happened," he says. "I'd want to do everything to help it take off. If in five or 10 years it still hasn't taken off, I'd want to take a really adult decision."
London, with a lack of success on the field and tiny attendances, is one of the big headaches that Barwick has inherited with his new role. "We've got to get to a point where if people say 'rugby league in London', they don't follow it with a negative," he says. "It has taken off in certain elements in London. There is fantastic grass-roots and community activity, but there are eight million people in London and we have to find a route to more of those people."
If not, the implication is, it could be time to turn off the life-support – but only as a last resort.
Brian Barwick goes back a long way with rugby league but not as far back as he does with football. His father, a police officer, used to take him to Liverpool and Everton on alternate Saturdays. When he decided Liverpool was his team, he combined watching them with trips to Knotty Ash to see Liverpool City play league.
By this time, he was at John Lennon's alma mater, Quarry Bank High School, where his contemporaries included Joe Royle, Steve Coppell and – perhaps less useful in the school team – Les Dennis. From there he read economics at Liverpool University and his first job in journalism was on the North-West Evening Mail in Barrow, where, for his last six months, he covered the town's rugby league team.
He applied successfully to BBC Sport, filling in the box marked "any other interests" with the claim to be Britain's best Eddie Waring impersonator. "I'd been a member at Liverpool of something called EdSoc, which was devoted to the talents and wisdom of Eddie Waring. Then, of course, I finished up working very closely with him, because rugby league was a very big part of Grandstand."
An initial six-month contract turned into 18 years. "I remember taking Desmond Lynam on his first film, which involved getting him out of bed at six in the morning. Now that was the hardest job in television."
Contrary to claims made by some at the time of his appointment by the RFL, Barwick is adamant that he remained a strong ally of the game. "Rugby league had a good mate there in me. I used to fight its corner," he insists.
From there, he became head of sport at ITV, "because I wanted to test myself in the commercial sector". Then the really big change of tack, when he was appointed chief executive of the Football Association.
They were turbulent times at the FA, especially for someone moving across from a high-profile career in the media. Barwick knew, he says, that he could expect a rough ride. "I knew they wouldn't spare me – and they didn't. I knew they wouldn't scar me – and they didn't."
In his second day in the job, he went to see the progress – or lack of it – on the new Wembley, said to himself, "This is never going to be ready", and went home to tell his wife that he had just seen the first thing that was going to keep him awake at night. "But we got there."
After four years in that hot seat, he took some time out, picked up a couple of academic posts, wrote a couple of books and one day noticed that the RFL was looking for a new chairman.
"A couple of people approached me and said, 'You wouldn't be interested in this, would you?' 'Well, actually, I would,' I said. I was missing the regular contact with a sport.
"I don't claim to be an expert on rugby league. I did claim to be an expert on football. But I'm no mug on rugby league either."
Barwick's part-time contract with the RFL commits him to working for six days a month on the game. However, it is not clear who is doing the counting. He has spent the last three months watching games, not just the glamour events like the recent Magic Weekend, but also the likes of Featherstone, Halifax and London Skolars. Before talking very much about the state of the game, he has taken a long, hard look at it.
The day we met, he had addressed 180 employees of the Rugby League for the first time. "I came away with an impression of commitment and dedication – people with a real passion for their sport. They won't get everything right – nobody does – but they won't make a mistake through not caring."
The Magic Weekend impressed him with its friendly contact between fans – something that could not be attempted in football – and its festival rugby. "We should have the confidence to say to everybody, 'Come and have a look at this' – not just rugby league people."
Last week, he visited the England squad at Loughborough, where they were preparing for last Friday's match against the Exiles, their one scheduled outing before this autumn's World Cup.
"I was really looking forward to seeing them at work," he says. "The World Cup is very important to us. We're going to give it a real go and I think the nation will get behind it."
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