The 18th man column: ‘Taking a match to America is a bad idea’

John Bateman training with England
John Bateman training with England

Our 18th man columnists discuss England’s Test in USA, Elstone’s challenges and Wigan’s trip to Castleford...

England face New Zealand in Denver – a good decision or not to take the game to America?

Sean Lawless: It’s not a good decision, it’s a great decision. I have spoken to Nate over in the USA who runs a podcast called Rugby League in America in the past week, to see his passion for the sport and the infrastructure that is already blossoming in the USA, and rugby league has to do things like this. The fact the 2025 World Cup will be played in North America makes occasions like this crucial to the development of the International game.

Jon Lyon: Expansion is always worth looking at. I suppose with Toronto trying to grow the game in Canada it would have made sense to take the game there instead. It certainly can’t do any harm and although there are an awful lot of sports to compete with in the USA, there is also a huge population to tap into.

One positive is that the huge number of withdrawals from the New Zealand team shouldn’t put any locals off watching the game, as I’m sure they have no idea who Shaun Johnson or Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are.

If the game was being played in England there would be a vastly-reduced crowd for the game.

Robert Kenyon: Bad decision, it will be great for the players to play in front of the Americans but if you’re going to go to Denver and spend all the money promoting a one-off game and then disappearing into the long grass once it’s finished then what’s the point? It would have been far better to play the game in Toronto, it would have built in the fan base already set up there.

For the new fans that come and watch the game they have Toronto Wolfpack to watch if they get hooked, what the hell is in Denver should someone want to start playing or watching rugby league? Sounds like a nice idea but in reality as pointless as going to Milwaukee or Dublin.

This game will just be like a holiday romance, really good for a few days and will create some good memories for the players but in reality just a flash in the pan.

Darren Wrudd: No. I don’t think it is a good decision at all. Another one of Nigel Wood’s wonderful gimmicks no doubt, just when we thought we had seen the last of him. I do understand the clubs wish to promote the game and put it on the big stage but there is too much wrong with the domestic game to start running off around the world and showing what a great game we have while close scrutiny shows we cannot sell it at home.

I for one don’t want a Toronto side, or New York for that matter, in our competition.

We have nearly empty stadiums with three or four thousand watching some of our Super League games while the management jolly off missing the point totally.

If we do not improve our domestic game and bring in bigger crowds with a better game day experience, we will struggle for the next decade and I think many clubs would fold.

David Bailey: Overall it’s a brilliant idea to take the game to the States. I will hold judgement on whether or not Denver is the right location until I see what kind of attendance it draws. Personally, it would have made sense to have held the game closer to Toronto and perhaps had a double header with the England v New Zealand game following a Wolfpack game. With the fantastic inroads Toronto have made commercially, it just feels like there is a huge opportunity to tap into the North American market and the next logical step would be a team based in the USA who already have an impressive grassroots set-up.

Do you think the shake-up, and the appointment of chief executive Robert Elstone, will help Super League grow?

Sean Lawless: Despite the various statements that have followed the unveiling of Robert Elstone, I can only see it as a positive thing for the future of the sport. There are some good brains behind the appointment in the shape of Ian Lenagan, Simon Moran etc. This gives Super League the opportunity to shape its own future away from the ties of the RFL. It is a bit like the Premier League and the FA back in 1992, 26 years on, you cannot say that the creation of the Premier League was a bad idea was it?

Jon Lyon: Robert Elstone has certainly received high praise from most of the Super League club chairmen so far. He has a challenge to convince Gary Hetherington at Leeds to follow his leadership, although if the figures are to be believed, Gary and Leeds have been outvoted 11-1 in favour of the scrapping of the Super 8’s and restructuring the Super League board, so Gary may just have to lump it.

The plan to focus almost solely on Super League, marketing wise, will undoubtedly help Super League grow. I’m less convinced it will be in the greater interest of the lower levels of the game. The scrapping of the Super 8s, if it goes ahead, with Championship and League 1 clubs fiercely opposed, will help prevent the current problem of marketing fixtures at only a few weeks’ notice, but there was a reason the Super 8s were introduced in the first place, and I’m interested how we prevent a lot of meaningless games towards the end of the season in future.

Robert Kenyon: After listening to Robert Elstone during the Golden Point programme he definitely strikes me as someone with the bit between his teeth, full of passion for the game and a genuine love for the game. ‘Pride in the job puts perfection in the work’ and I think he’ll do a great job.

In the mid 90s as a sport we were just behind football but alongside boxing, rugby union and cricket or just behind. Now, we are probably just in front of speedway in the general public consensus. Things need to change, when you look at some of the Super League squads mainly Widnes and Salford they are Championship squads, not Super League squads. Most of the best British players go to the NRL, we only get their banned players and reserve-grade players, we don’t even get their ‘washed-up looking for a holiday players’ anymore.

More money needs to go to the SL clubs, maybe reduce the number of teams so we have a really competitive league filled with top players. All the old Yorkshire clubs are moaning about this, but let’s be honest, SL is the pinnacle of the sport so it should lead the way and not held back by a club that gets 500 fans a game, seriously there are more people going watching amateur rugby than some of these clubs.

I regularly watch the NRL (every game on Sky) and it blows SL out of the water it’s that good. I watched Widnes v Salford and turned it off after 10 minutes. Elstone has a really hard job on his hands but for the first time since Maurice Lindsay was involved in RL I’m genuinely optimistic about the future of the sport.

Darren Wrudd: Robert Elstone has had much to do with Super League from its inception back in the mid 1990s when he was heavily involved in the whole concept.

A well-respected businessman, he has held top positions in a few organisations and seems to have left each in better condition than when he arrived. In particular, his time at Everton has seen the whole club develop into a well-run machine which was largely his remit when he joined them in 2005. I hope he will be allowed to concentrate his efforts on Super League itself and the improvement of the domestic game which we desperately need. If so, then I can see much improvement on the horizon and in particular the promotion of our game to a wider British audience. More bums on seats puts clubs in a better position and everyone can earn more money and stop the leaching of our best talent to the NRL. That is the growth we want and with Elstone at the helm we may just have a chance.

David Bailey: Reading between the lines, this shake-up where Super League clubs take control of the marketing and revenue streams leaving the RFL to act as the governing body has been a long time in the making.

The challenges Robert Elstone faces will have been crystal clear last week. Following his press conference and the subsequent statements that followed on a seemingly hourly basis from disgruntled chairmen and CEO’s on both sides of the fence it will be a huge task to unite the games figureheads. Ultimately, most of the men running Super League clubs are successful businessmen in their own right and will be making decisions to help the clubs grow, so surely a by-product of that will be the game growing.

Wigan head to Castleford without three England players (although George Williams would have missed out through injury anyway). Thoughts?

Sean Lawless: It is what it is, when the game was re-arranged, it didn’t look to be a bad decision with the likelihood of Gale etc missing from the Castleford squad. As it is, no Castleford players have been called up but they are still missing a fair amount of players through injury.

The Hull KR draw at the weekend should give Wigan confidence they can go there and win – what a great opportunity it will be for those who come into the side also, time for Josh Woods to step up in Williams’ absence.

Jon Lyon: It’s a matter of just getting on with it. Presumably when the rescheduled fixture was decided, which Wigan agreed to, no-one thought we would have three players playing and Castleford not having any. That’s what can happen in sport.

For all the talk of Castleford benefiting from the England call ups, for their last game against Hull KR, Cas were without Ben Roberts, Greg Eden, Jamie Ellis, Luke Gale, Grant Millington, Gadwin Springer and Liam Watts, and Wardle, McMeeken, Sene-Lefao and Milner were all injured during the game and couldn’t finish the match.

Unlike the last two seasons, for once Wigan can’t complain about injuries, and even without arguably our three best players we should be looking to win against a severely-weakened Castleford team. It won’t be easy, but if we go with a positive attitude then there’s no reason why we can’t leave the Jungle with the two points.

Robert Kenyon: It sure makes things a lot tougher for us. It’s a sacrifice other sports makes all the time like cricket and rugby union, the pinnacle of their game is the international game and the players are centrally contracted.

Waney and Daryl Powell have previous, the game is at Cas but they’re missing Luke Gale who is their talisman, and I reckon the signing of Zak Hardaker will add spice. With us missing Lockers, Bateman, Joel Tomkins and Williams it will be a tough ask and players like Tommy Leuluai and Sam Tomkins will have to step up to the plate and lead the team, which I’m sure they will.

Darren Wrudd: It’s a tough one this, on one hand who would I be to stop a young player earning a chance to play for England, surely a highlight in his career, just because the club might suffer? On the other hand, the club pays his wages and the fans turn out to see their team at its best.

Normally, we may have had a free week so that there would be no impact, but with the re-scheduled Castleford game it makes an interesting talking point. I would not stand in their way and wish them and their team mates well, it is England after all. I would think it will give a couple of lads the chance to shine and make their stand in the line-up to face the Tigers. This is often when careers are launched and I am looking forward to seeing the shape of the team we put out.

David Bailey: You play the hand that’s dealt you is my honest opinion. The game against Cas was called off with good reason earlier in the season and this weekend was deemed the most appropriate to play the game. It’s no use complaining about missing players as the Tigers themselves are a few men down through injury.

Shaun Wane should count himself lucky the team as a whole have been off form as we could quite easily have been left without the likes of Oliver Gildart, Tony Clubb, Liam Farrell and Sam Tomkins, plus a few others who could have forced their way into Wayne Bennett’s reckoning. After the gutsy display against Hull, I am hopeful the players will continue in this vein and who knows, Escare and Hamlin may get some more game time and Navarette should keep his place too after the fantastic effort at the KCom.