Rugby league is in an existential crisis. On the face of it the sport may be a tiny-shorted, tattooed ball of muscle ready to smash headlong into a similarly taught, sinewy opponent, but deep down it needs someone to tell it that it is loved.
This was supposed to be the season when league leapt off its sickbed to bask in the glow that followed the wildly successful World Cup at the end of last year. Super League has a new sponsor – or a sponsor, full stop – and Sky Sports have expanded their live coverage so a single round stretches from Thursday to Sunday.
Even the BBC had pledged to push the sport beyond its traditional heartland of within 12 miles of the old Wigan Casino. So all is good, right? Well, not quite.
In today’s broadcasting parlance, the product is there – few can deny that a rugby league match is all-action, simple to understand and free of the unfathomable pile-ons that plague 15-man rugby.
But some of those who push the product are torn. On one hand they seem not quite sure of its value, while on the other they appear reluctant to lose control of it, like a bearded hipster with interesting glasses who finds out their favourite post-rock sextet is topping the bill at Hyde Park this summer.
This is borne out by the number of times Sky commentators refer to “this great game of ours” during a match. The “great game” part sounds faintly desperate, while the “of ours” implies a threat of “hands off, this game was built in the pits and fells of the frozen north and no namby-pamby, multi-coloured-boot-wearing interloper is going to take it away from us”.
The panellists on BBC1’s Super League Show seem more secure about the standing of the game – Tanya Arnold, the host, has no need to convince viewers that what we are about to watch is high-octane stuff. She gives a brief introduction then it is straight into the bone-crunching action.
Last week’s round-up was dominated by Bradford Bulls’ financial woes and Arnold’s guests, Jon Wilkin of St Helens and Iestyn Harris, the Wigan assistant coach, were excellent in summing up what the players and staff will be feeling as the club’s off-field problems led to a six-point deduction and an increased threat of relegation.
Harris did let slip one “our game”, although that was the only parochial faux pas. For most of the show, the level of punditry could have been mistaken for a more sharply opined Match of the Day.
But here’s the rub – or two rubs, to be precise. First, the programme airs at 10 minutes to midnight on a school night. Second, it is shown only in the northern regions, where rugby league is already popular. Surely if 13-man egg-chasers want to spread the gospel, they would demand that the highlights show is broadcast at a time when there are viewers about – and in a wider catchment area than the north of England.
Perhaps they are too stone-faced to tell the world about their game – this is a sport which calls its player of the year the Man of Steel, after all. But we need to get past the stoicism. Deep down, you get the feeling that rugby league needs a hug.