Off-field moves that belittle the spectacle

Dave Hadfield, Rugby League Correspondent, decries decisions harming the game
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The Independent Online
Those of us suffering from an incurable love affair with rugby league are more than usually worried this week. Not by what we see on the field, mind you. There, the game, despite the threat of creeping paralysis setting in through Wigan's dominance, is in rude good health.

Saturday's Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie between Wigan and St Helens was a case in point. Fierce, fast, skilful, dramatic - it was a perfect example of the qualities that convince not just the cognoscenti but also many from outside the game that, at its best, there are few finer spectacles.

The shame of it is that the wrangle about a replay date that followed Saturday's match went on longer than the game itself and does the code far less credit. The outcome of that squabble was shameful. It means that tomorrow night's European Championship match between England and France will be robbed of its best players and completely overshadowed by the second meeting between the two clubs at Knowsley Road.

The League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, strove mightily yesterday to justify the decision on the basis of the inviolability of the game's by-laws.

Lindsay could -and should - have over-ruled those by-laws. They seem to me to leave sufficient room for interpretation to allow that. If they do not, and if they really insist that an international match must be robbed of its credibility in this way, then the by-laws are an ass.

By conceding that the match at Gateshead, in an area where the Rugby League claims to have serious expansion plans, must play a poor second fiddle to a club game, Lindsay is pandering to exactly the sort of parochial self-interest he generally derides.

Football has own goals, governments have banana skins. The rugby equivalent is an in-goal knock-on, and sadly this is not the only one of late.

If the League's standing orders really intend that Martin Offiah should be able to play for Wigan after being withdrawn from the World Sevens, or that an international should not count towards Dean Sampson's suspension when one was taken into consideration for Shaun Edwards, then the standing orders are an ass, too.

Even worse for the game's credibility, all these decisions happen to suit Wigan very well indeed, which must be an embarrassment for Lindsay, a former chairman of that club. On top of that, there is the disquiet caused by the departure last week of the League's public affairs executive, Harry Gration, the second holder of that post to leave in little more than a year.

In many ways, that job amounts to being No 2 to Lindsay. To lose one might be bad luck; two sounds suspiciously like carelessness.

Lindsay's argument at a press briefing with an edge of urgency to it yesterday was that public relations disasters like tomorrow night's clash can be prevented by addressing the fundamental problems of the game's structure.

There are simply too many games to be squeezed into the domestic season. When anything fails to go to script, there are no contingency plans in place and we wind up with an appalling botch-up. The answer, or at least part of it, lies in a smaller First Division. That was a battle which Lindsay, who paradoxically seemed to find it easier to get his own way by stealth as chairman of Wigan than through the more rigid structures of the game's bureaucracy, seemed to have lost earlier this season.

Clubs then rejected all the worthwhile aspects of the document grandly entitled "Framing the Future", worrying as they always do about their own perceived - and often misconceived - interests.

At the meeting of the Rugby League Council tomorrow, those same clubs will have it put to them much more forcibly that reform is not only desirable but essential if the game is to have something worth calling a future.

It will not prevent all the in-goal knock-ons we have seen over the past couple of weeks, but it will remove the most often cited excuse for failing to run the game as well as its participants play it.

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