As Rugby League celebrates its 122nd anniversary this week, we ask: ‘Over a century on, are we heading for a second split due to the unfair treatment of working players?’
Rugby League is a rare sport, one founded on a principle.
When the public school types of the London-based Rugby Union sneered at the very thought of broken time payments to working Northern players in compensation for losing work wages to play, they drove Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs into forming what a Union apologist described in the Yorkshire Post as ‘a union of their own’. A Northern Union.
At the heart of the split is what we think is a quote that most beautifully crystallises Union thinking at the time. Referenced from several sources - most commonly from the Salford Reporter in the months leading up to the split - it says: “If the working man cannot afford to play, he must do as other people have to do, who want things they cannot afford - do without"
Indeed, the opportunity for ‘The Working Man’ to play Rugby League at the highest level befitting his skill is locked in the DNA of our game - but as Rugby League heads towards its 125th anniversary, we can sense the threat of another ‘working man’ split that could force the game apart. And - as previously - the forces at work are time, money and fairness.
The European Dream
The Murdoch-isation of Rugby League in 1995 lit the fuse for this current potential implosion: vast amounts of TV money poured in to try and create a fully professional European Super League. Great in principle, awkward in practice.
What Murdoch’s plan failed to understand is that bad teams lose - sometimes quite often.
The European dream that began with Paris Saint Germain beating Sheffield Eagles 30-24 in front of almost 18,000 people in March 1996, lay crashed and burned by May 1997. Not until Catalans Dragons were granted a Super League licence in 2006 did top flight Rugby League re-acquire its much desired ‘European’ dimension.
And that’s worked reasonably well since - full-time professional players on both sides of the Channel able to prepare and travel for fixtures helping establish the Dragons as Super League staple - until this season, where indifferent performances have shunted the Catalans into genuine relegation trouble. Hold that thought.
Down in the Championship and League 1, Rugby League’s international dream is causing issues, as full-time Toulouse and Toronto Wolfpack are compelling part-time teams - teams made up of ‘working men’ - to take days off work to travel to fulfil fixtures.
The game already asks a great deal of commitment from its part-time players, but repeated overseas trips (sometimes at short notice), place undue pressure on players’ relationships with employers who already offer incredible (but not inevitable) patience. And many of these guys are family men - Rugby League is not their job and to add needless pressure at home shows little concern for player welfare.
Only this month, Rochdale Hornets’ game in Toulouse required 19 ‘working men’ to ask for Friday off work to travel, play at 8pm on a Saturday night (in a game that ended at almost 11pm), then travel back on Sunday - a journey of over 10 hours for some, as half of the squad had to fly from Limoges (given the short notice of the fixture and the availability of flights) landing home late Sunday night. They then had to set their alarms to go to work on Monday morning, while Toulouse released video of their full-time players relaxing at a theme park.
Similarly, we read this week that Barrow have had to crowd-fund their second trip to Toronto this season after their last trip a) left them £4,000 out of pocket and b) left several of their key players unable to travel. Full-time status of the opposition notwithstanding, such a situation creates an unfair contest - hardly befitting of a game founded on a desire for fair treatment.
How far is too far?
It seems unfair enough to us, that part-time players are asked to travel from Whitehaven to Skolars and back in a day and still have to get up for work, having got home in the early hours of Monday morning. But going back to work having burned two days holiday AND having done two transatlantic flights in four days defies logic.
But what’s the alternative? Asking ‘working men’ to compromise their livelihoods to play heavily weighted games in Rugby League’s most distant corners runs counter to the principle on which the game was founded. Next year, the Championship could push the situation to breaking point. It’s generally assumed that Toronto will buy their way out of League One, Toulouse have - again - stalled in the second tier and, if the worst happens, the RFL could see Catalans Dragons dropping down a tier.
So you would have a league in which at least half of the teams are part-time, requiring semi-pro players to travel extremely long distances to fulfil at least three fixtures. To misquote Oscar Wilde, asking them to do it once is unfortunate, but three times? Four Times? More times? It’s just not fair, equitable or viable.
It does, however, discriminate heavily against players with jobs. Which is where we came in.
The schism is real
There is already anger amongst Championship clubs who are clearly feeling the strain of managing increasingly unrealistic RFL expectations. In a recent League Express article, three championship coaches voiced their frustrations at having to ask their players to negotiate more time off before embarking on logistically ludicrous trips. Effectively forcing working players to make the choice between their club and their job - takes us back to square one: “… if the working man cannot afford to play, he must do as other people have to do, who want things they cannot afford - do without”.
Or, alternatively, form a game of their own?
If the RFL continues to ignore its treatment of working players, it is in real danger of creating two incompatible versions of the game. Indeed, for us, a natural reaction to excessive demands on players with jobs outside Rugby League would be to push the part-time game closer to the ‘community’ game: with semi-pro/semi-amateur players having a clearer affinity with those who ‘play for sport’.
Ultimately, it’s the fact that the sport has lost sight of its fundamental principle of fair treatment for working players that saddens us. And in their selective blindness, the RFL shouldn’t just blithely assume that a new split won’t happen. Its own history is against it.