Marketing men take their eyes off the ball

Dave Hadfield considers the problems that have distracted rugby league from celebrating past and future success
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The Independent Online
A week into its second century and rugby league is in trouble - but not for either of the reasons put forward over the last few days.

First of all, the code is not in a state of terror, panic or even mild concern over rugby union's decision to come clean and pay its players on a more organised and acknowledged basis.

The cry that this is the end for rugby league fails to recognise something that should have become clear over the last 100 years - that the game is an entirely separate sport which sometimes, although not as often or as crucially as is suggested, attracts players from another game.

If fewer rugby union players opt to play league, if some league players accept offers to play union, or if some float between the two, it is no disaster. League will still be able to offer attractive terms to players it really wants and the opportunity for players to try both codes without threat of draconian punishment is what the game has always argued for.

Nor has the roof come crashing down with the much-vaunted steroid revelations over the weekend. The league element in the On the Line programme on Radio 5 was flimsy indeed and nothing like as substantial as the case advanced against Welsh rugby union. If, as seems likely, the investigations lead to the League increasing the frequency of drug testing, that will be all to the good.

However, anyone with half an eye on the game, either here or in Australia, suspects that all is not well. Indeed, one of the sadder aspects of the spread of steroids is that any player who improves his power and physique comes under suspicion.

The battle against drugs in the game needs to be stepped up and the odds of escaping detection diminished, although whether the call of the chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, for life bans will ever become more than a sound-bite is open to doubt.

It is not diminishing the importance of the steroid question to say that it is not the biggest headache facing the game at the moment.

A couple of weeks into the centenary season, it is no exaggeration to say that the credibility of the code is under threat.

This truncated, transitional season before the advent of Super League in March was always destined to be problematic. But, with Wigan streets ahead of opposition which does not always seem greatly interested in taking them on, its ability to hold on to the attention of a discerning public is even more fragile than was feared.

Gates are down, matches outside the 11-team Championship seem to take place in a publicity vacuum and there are few signs anywhere of the improvements that were promised under the pounds 87m chequebook marriage with Rupert Murdoch.

The best thing about the centenary season is the way that some clubs, with a nod to tradition, have reverted to playing in proper rugby shirts rather than glorified leisure garments. For most people that is the only visible evidence that there is anything being celebrated this year or that anything exciting lies ahead.

Early days, you might say, trusting that everything is going to slot magically into place next March. But by then a game which has lost credibility with its own public could have left itself with too much ground to make up. Over on the horizon, there is either the US Cavalry ready to ride to the rescue or another war party of Apaches, depending on your point of view.

The salvation or the exacerbation of the season is the Halifax Centenary World Cup, due to kick off, although you could be excused for not knowing this, in less than five weeks' time.

This gathering of 10 nations in the World Cup proper and seven more in the tournament for emerging nations could and should be one of the proudest events in the game's history. Forget the sneers about the lack of world- wide penetration. There are almost as few countries where union is played to any standard as there are league - that is not the point. There will be as many truly competitive games and more exciting rugby played this October in Britain than there was in South Africa this summer and rugby league has an opportunity to show that, on the field, it is a flourishing, vibrant entity.

If only anyone believed that the game was capable of organising and presenting itself that way. Promotion and marketing are only just cranking into gear, however, in contrast with the months of hype that preceded union's jamboree, and ticket sales have been so slow as to constitute a crisis in the making.

There is time for that to improve, of course, but it is going to have to improve to a remarkable degree to prevent the staging of the opening match between England and Australia at Wembley on 7 October turning into a damaging mistake. Wembley needs to be half full to make that a success and so far that is just a distant dream.

The match is the victim of fall-out from the international battle for league's soul. Australia is sending a squad devoid of Super League affiliated players, which has left Lindsay decrying its quality on the one hand and wanting people to part with good money to watch it on the other. You can't have it both ways.

The World Cup is still capable of becoming an outstanding success. Even without players of the calibre of Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley - all of whom will soon be in court arguing that the Australian Rugby League is acting illegally by excluding them - I would still argue that it represents a higher-quality concentration of rugby talent than the other mob's counter-attraction in South Africa.

The certainty is that making it a success is crucially important, because, in a year that should have been one long uplifting experience, the game is desperately in need of a lift.