If there is one surefire way to make a sport look second rate in the eyes of the general public, it is when an administrator treats his own sport as second rate. That is what Andrew Abdo and the NRL have achieved by moving a preliminary final in order to avoid a clash with the AFL’s grand final.
Only two weeks ago, when asked by The Sunday Telegraph about the clash, Abdo stated: “We will stand our ground. Sports lovers will have to make a choice. League fans will be more interested in our preliminary final.”
On Monday, the NRL backed down, moving a game that will determine a grand finalist after 29 weeks of action in order to appease a sport that has earmarked rugby league heartland and used rugby league talent in their expansion plans and dreams of national domination.
If rugby league does not believe in rugby league, it is hard to expect any fan – from rusted-on to mildly interested – to buy into any notion that the game is one of grandiosity, of importance, of history, of cultural significance.
The NRL have naturally attempted to spin this entirely unnecessary programming shift as being an act of magnanimous generosity: this is to help the Melbourne Storm, who were supposedly unhappy with the scheduling clash; this is to ensure fans can enjoy an event, even if that event is the main attraction of their biggest sporting rival; this is about ensuring a better rating for the NRL; this is listening, not reacting.
But the optics are not good in a battle the game has been losing for as long as it has existed, but one which the faithful believed was changing under Peter V’landys. Those hopes have been dealt an almighty blow this week with V’landys on the public record justifying the move, essentially shifting a premier NRL match to avoid a stoush with a sport he advised people should not “watch or play” back in April.
The man who semi-seriously suggested Victorian racing should move the Melbourne Cup is presiding over an organisation willing to ensure people can watch another code, even at the cost of undermining its own product.
The NRL can brush this off as it so often has deprioritised its own image but it is actions like this that have seen rugby league portrayed as the poor cousin of the Australian football scene. Despite typically having four of the top 10 most watched programs in Australia annually, despite being the most watched sport on subscription television and despite being the code of choice in two of the three most populous states, the NRL and its predecessors have long failed to exert the same influence with government, big business, and mainstream media proprietors as the AFL.
The result has been a widespread perception that the AFL is bigger, bolder and better than the NRL and that Australian rules football inherently has more attractive characteristics than rugby league. Moving a match as important as a preliminary final in order to allow casual rugby league fans to watch an AFL match only reinforces that perception.
This is not just about some pig-headed posturing in a code war that is over a century old, the latest flare-up in a war that will never have a winner. This is not about an opportunity missed to win a grand final rating skirmish. This is not even about the NRL administration providing at least a pantomime impression that they weren’t caught out by both the possibility of a clash and their own inconsistent messaging.
This is about those charged with running, organising and fostering rugby league in Australia not standing up for the game. Whether it is fear or naivety or blindness, those leading the NRL have put rugby league back in its box. Rather than promote the stature of one of the most important games of the season, the NRL have undermined it.
For rugby league to ever break free of the provincial shackles it seems hellbent on staying in, it needs to truly believe in itself. Shifting a preliminary final to allow viewers to watch another code suggests this administration does not fully believe in the game.