Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Can League Repel the Invasion of the *nion Bodysnatchers?

25 years ago, Liverpudlian band Icicle Works released an album called 'If you want to defeat your enemy - sing his song'. TRLCRF80mins is concerned that someone at Twickenham has adopted this as a strategy to undermine Rugby League.

Gateshead Thunder's 'code switch' to become part of the 'dual-code' Newcastle Rugby Ltd. organisation got us thinking about how the *nion game seems inexorably drawn to the thing it despises most: Rugby League.

Here at TLCRF80mins, we've always said that Rugby *nion is, at its core, a severely conflicted sport.

Encoded in its DNA is an inherent hatred of league - having spent the vast majority of the last 120 years working not only to disadvantage our sport as much as possible, but actively investing time and effort to eradicate it in some territories. On the other hand, whilst it hates league, it sees in our sport the game it so desperately wants to be - fast, open, athletic, exciting. Indeed they want to be us so much that *nion has made every effort to lay claim to many RL innovations - red/yellow cards, sin-bins, video refs, blood-bins - even the play-the-ball, reinvented by the RFU as the 'Roll-the-ball' for development versions of their game.

Increasingly, *nion has wrapped itself in League's clothing, speaking our language - walking and talking in desperate imitation. The latest attempt to adopt League's brand positioning is the most audacious yet. Is there any co-incidence that on the 120th anniversary of the foundation of the Northern Union that the International Rugby Board announced the launch of a competition in the USA called the National Rugby Football League (NRFL) with plans to begin in the summer of 2015?

Branded 'the professional RuXV™ League' with the strapline 'The next real major league sport in America'  - every element of it appropriates Rugby League's vocabulary, its lexicon, its branding - even its names, here and in Australia. It is, in our opinion, a blatant exercise in the intellectual property crime of 'Passing Off' . The law of 'Passing' Off entitles a business (in this case Rugby League) to protect itself against another business (in this case Rugby *nion) from unfairly using its goodwill to gain sales/market share.  Basically, it entails one business selling their own goods/services by making themselves indistinguishable from a competitor so that people believe that they are the goods/services of someone else -  wilfully misleading the audience.

And if the use of 'National Rugby Football League' doesn't have you shaking your head in disbelief, remember that they've already seized use of the term 'Rugby World Cup' (first used by Rugby League in France in 1954 -  the first World Cup in either rugby code).  They've also taken use of the term 'Challenge Cup', via the launch of the European Rugby Challenge Cup which began this season.

Over time, the appropriation of these terms blurs the lines between codes - particularly in development areas where *nion is keen to foster the idea that there is only one legitimate code of 'rugby' and prevent entry/development of league in those territories (the USA's RuXV™ League will certainly undermine the ground gained by the USA Tomahawks in the 2013 World Cup).

Whilst we get angry and frustrated by *nion's continued knavish tricks, the silence from RL's hierarchy is deafening. If faced with such a blatant case of passing off - a campaign of activity designed to mislead audiences and trade off the back of another brand's equity - any other business on the planet would've sent the lawyers steaming in with a Cease & Desist notice -  a legal device informing a third party of the right-holders' rights, identity, and intentions to enforce their rights to an intellectual property.

Rest assured, the desire to protect its intellectiual property rights certainly flows the other way. There was an occurrence in 2004, when the NZRU sent a Cease & Desist notice to York based amateurs New Earswick All Blacks in order to prevent any compromises of their/their licencees' exclusivity to capitalise on the All-Blacks brand. At the time, NZRU chief executive Chris Moller said: "Failure to protect trademarks undermine your rights.  A trademark is a very valuable property for all organisations.  If you are in possesion of information regarding someone infringing your rights and you choose to do nothing about it, then under law you are deemed to have accepted that situation. Even though this is another sport, and an amateur organisation, we are obliged to take steps."

Having had no push back on 'Rugby World Cup' and 'Challenge Cup', you can almost understand *nion chancing its arm on 'NRFL'. And our fear is that RL's head-in the sand passivity might, eventually, do *nion's dirty work for it. Institutionally, the RFU spent a century wishing us dead, undertaking unforgiveable acts of discrimination against players who dared to throw a ball around under a different set of laws and get openly rewarded for the privilege (don't forget that, while claiming the 'amateur' high ground, top *nion clubs secretly tucked wads of cash into players' boots after games).

And let's not forget that the *nion code in France sided with the Vichy Government to criminalise League and strip it of its assets in an attempt to wipe it from the sporting map. W. Mann's review of Mike Rylance's book "The Forbidden Game: The Untold Story of French Rugby League" summarises: "The French Rugby Union's collusion with the Nazi-backed Vichy Government to ban Rugby League is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of sport. It all but destroyed a sport that was, at the time, threatening to overtake rugby union in popularity terms, even though league was only introduced to France six years earlier. Had league continued its meteoric rise, the map of world rugby - and I mean both codes - might today be very different."

"Yet there is still a sense of denial about what happened to Rugby League in France. Even today, the game is discriminated against - try asking the Catalans Dragons about their difficulties sharing a supposedly municipal stadium with union club Perpignan."

 *nion's continued - blatant - undermining of League's development is one of the reasons we feel uncomfortable when Rugby League cosies-up to the 15-man game. Indeed, every time we see a League club get into bed with a *nion counterpart, or we see a *nion squad joining a League side for 'training' so it can 'learn' from League's superior skills, our teeth itch.

Like a crocodile, they may smile broadly in our presence, but their only real thought is how soon they might bite us in half. As we started with a song reference, it's fitting that we end with one: "Never smile at a crocodile, you can't get friendly with a crocodile. Don't be taken in by his welcome grin - he's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin…"

Or - in *nion's case - just how perfectly they would fit into ours.