Super Leaguers shape up for the small screen

Rugby league risks sacrificing the essence of the sport as it seeks to satisfy its influential backers, argues Dave Hadfield
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Mal Meninga was every bit as commanding on centre stage as he used to be in a centre's shirt. "No dramatic rule changes," he said, almost adding, George Bush-like: "Read my lips. No dramatic changes."

As a highly influential front-man for the Super League, Meninga comes up with the right sound bites. But there are others, who wield even more clout than he does, singing a subtly different tune.

Take this, for instance. "We'll make rugby league look like you've never seen it before." It is not exactly "steady as she goes" - and it comes from Rupert Murdoch, in an interview with the Australian last month.

Meninga was in England this week for the launch of the European end of Murdoch's Super League empire. He had to help make the future sound exciting - which it is - but, at the same time, reassuringly familiar, something it may well not be.

The fact of the matter is that Super League is going to have to deliver the goods for television. As Meninga admitted on Monday, meetings of Super League coaches in Australia have already come up with a series of suggestions. This way, the game can still claim to be in the driving seat; logic dictates, however, that it is the changes which will suit the screen that will be adopted.

The word from Australia is that those changes will include stopping the clock for goal-kicks, unlimited substitutions, moving all scrums 20 metres infield and, possibly, dividing games into four quarters.

Although Meninga and the driving force behind the Super League in Britain, Maurice Lindsay, were at pains to point out that nothing will happen without an international consensus, such revisions of the rules would move the code further away from its heritage as a continuous game played, for the most part, by the same 13 players.

The overriding need to package the game as telegenic entertainment has already started here with the dramatic opening up of play under the 10- metre offside rule. One Australian observer, used to the different practices back home, watched the 15 tries in the London Broncos' match against St Helens last week and said: "I have seen the future of rugby league and it's called basketball."

It looks good on TV, but, as a live diet week after week, it can be curiously unsatisfying and bloodless.

One problem that Super League on both continents will have when it starts in March is that too many matches will be unbalanced. A solution is already suggesting itself; the side that scores kicking off and their opponents getting possession.

Changes will be as dramatic as they need to be to make the Super League work. And, five years down the line, when the first Super League contract expires, the more far-sighted clubs are preparing themselves for a whole new ball-game. What some of them expect to be doing then is playing in a truly European competition, involving teams from what are now rugby union clubs.

Will that be under rugby league rules as we know them? The truth is that we do not know, or that those who do know are not saying.

What Murdoch has said is that it will be done his way - or else. "If we've failed in rugby league we'll move on to the next sport and the next one and maybe we'll come back to rugby league one day soon, or later. We'll see."

We will, starting next March.

n Oldham's coach, Andy Goodway, believed to be on a shortlist of three for the coaching job of new Super League club Paris, will have talks about his future with Oldham's chairman, Jim Quinn, tomorrow.