IT IS no exaggeration to say that rugby league’s autumn tournament is one of the biggest flops in recent UK sporting history, which has done further damage to a sport which already suffers from a high degree of public indifference, and a growing and dangerous disillusionment even amongst its hardcore fans.
On Saturday England will beat France in the final at Salford. The only question to be resolved is whether the margin of victory will be comfortable or a cricket score.
I wonder how many people reading this column knew that England played France last Saturday in a match which one correspondent described in a national newspaper as being a game in which there was “little to warm the 7,000-odd diehards, who braved a chilly afternoon at a building site on the east coast”.
The same correspondent, one of the few to get space for rugby league in a weekend broadsheet newspaper, started his coverage of the match by commenting on the widespread feeling that the whole tournament was “pointless”.
This was the format. England, Wales and France would play each other and the two top teams would play off in a final. You did not have to be a direct descendant of Nostradamus to foresee that Wales would not win any of their games, and that therefore France would play England in the final and that England would win comfortably.
What made this charade much worse is that the schedule of games dictated that England and France would play each other on consecutive weekends.
The games have all been shown live on BBC on Saturday afternoons, but that has not been good news. No sport can flourish if those millions of viewers see boring, one-sided games in either small and tawdry or half full stadiums, while listening to commentators, or propagandists, chuntering on with faux enthusiasm as if these were genuine international matches à la Twickenham or Wembley.
Next year is the 14th Rugby League World Cup and I for one fear its consequences. We can already be certain that the final will be between Australia and either New Zealand or England, as there is no possibility of any other team reaching the final.
This itself is a problem because that is not the case in either the football or the rugby union World Cups, and it robs the tournament of much suspense and excitement. It also does little to generate enthusiasm among potential spectators or sponsors.
But the problem is much deeper than just the predictability of a tournament, or the tournament itself.
The state of the game is so bad that until there is profound change in the leadership and senior management of rugby league I cannot see any possible improvement. What is staggering is that those who run the game do not see the impending car crash.
I do not know if rugby league ever makes its way onto the curriculum at any business schools. But if it ever does in the future it will represent one of the most astonishing case studies the students will ever study.
A fantastic product (for that is the way its own cheerleaders now describe rugby league) which was so badly promoted, marketed and sold that it fell into oblivion: mark my words.