The 18th Man Column: Bring back the biff to make sport bigger

Joe Burgess dives in at the corner  against Widnes
Joe Burgess dives in at the corner against Widnes

Our 18th Man panel answer this week’s burning questions.

Wakefield have won four from four – are they a genuine threat?

Sean Lawless: At the start of the season, I was very quick to write Wakefield off, now four games in and four wins from four - are they are a real threat? No.

For me, they have yet to be tested by a quality opposition and they lack the squad depth to really challenge at the back end of the season. They are most definitely a top-eight side, but once the fixtures start to pile up around Easter, I expect their top four credentials to crumble.

Jon Lyon: It’s very early days to be talking about Wakefield challenging at the business end of the season.

They have certainly started well, and have probably the strongest squad I can remember them having for many a year. Four wins from four is impressive but the truth is they will certainly have tougher games to play than their four conquests so far in Huddersfield, Catalans, Salford and Hull KR. I shouldn’t imagine any of those teams will be troubling the play offs, so it will be interesting to see how they get on against the supposed better sides over the next few games.

Hopefully Tom Johnstone can stay fit as he is without doubt one of the most exciting players to watch in Super League.

Robert Kenyon: Definitely, Wakefield are a good side with a good coach.

Darren Wrudd: I think just as we saw from Castleford last year, every dog has its day – and Wakefield are no exception.

The modern game of rugby league is an injury lottery and if your ticket comes up with a clean bill of health for the squad, that can be half the battle.

Of course Wakefield do not have a great depth in the squad and with many clubs choosing not to field an academy side, that investment for the future will mean meagre reserves when injuries begin to pile up.

So whilst they have the possibility to plough a furrow through the early stages, I cannot see it developing into a full blown challenge unless they are very fortunate with injuries. Besides, I heard someone say it was Warrington’s year in 2018!

David Bailey: Although 
Trinity have been progressing on the field the last couple of years, I still feel they lack that big game mentality and experience as a unit. They may “do a Cas” and have a good season in the league itself but I believe there are half a dozen sides ahead of them when it comes down to an 80 minute game such as a cup game or playoff tie. It pains me to say it but Saints are streets ahead of anyone at this early stage but the likes of Wigan and Hull in particular with have the pack strength to handle them and minimise the threat from their exciting backline. It will be interesting to see how trinity fare this weekend as once again if Wigan are going to be serious contenders, they need to win this game.

Eddie Hearn doesn’t know any rugby league players despite being a sports fan. Can any of the Super League players become household names – and if so, how?

Sean Lawless: I think Sam Tomkins was the player earmarked for the celebrity role before he went to the NRL, he appeared on Soccer AM, interviewed Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe and the Man of Steel premiere etc. Those are the types of things that make players house hold names, being drip feed into the public consciousness and Eddie Hearn can certainly do that.

You need someone with the skill of Tomkins, the strength of Sam Burgess and personality of Anthony Gelling -–unfortunately, that person doesn’t exist at the moment; however my tip would be George Williams.

Jon Lyon: There is no doubt Eddie Hearn has done well promoting darts and boxing, but one thing that stands out is how well Eddie Hearn promotes Eddie Hearn. He comes across as a man who has a desperate need to be the centre of attention, and I wonder if we need someone like this in our sport.

Even the more well known players of our not so distant past such as Hanley, Offiah, Sculthorpe and Robinson have hardly been national superstars, so I’m not sure what Eddie Hearn thinks he can do to change this, and it worries me about how gimmicky he may try to make our sport.

Robert Kenyon: In the film, Field of Dreams, he says ‘Build it and they will come’. That’s what we need to do. We need to improve the spectacle first and foremost.

Starting by stopping the refs stop the game every five minutes ruining the game. Reducing substitutions so that forwards get tired in defence more. When I watch a game these days it’s whoever makes least mistakes, gets better set completion rate and can do ‘The Move’ better than the opposition that wins.

And every attacking play is orchestrated, players are scared of offloading or trying a chip over the top.

So we need to improve the spectacle because it has gone down hill in recent years. Also stopping the game because two players want to grab each other by the collar and stare at each other for five minutes, bring back the biff I say. The game is far too sanitised.

It will never get to the stage where all Super League players are household names, I’d go as far to say only five per cent of Premier League footballers are household names so we don’t stand a chance.

What we do stand a chance of being is having our International players recognised by general sports fans. That’s a lot more achievable. Most sports fans will only know Sam Burgess but that’s because of his NRL Grand Final won with a broken cheekbone then his rugby union stint.

Sam Tomkins was on his way to becoming a household name until he went to NZ Warriors and then dropped off the radar.

So, we need to keep our players in Super League. We can only really do that if we pay more money, we can only pay more if we scrap or increase the cap and it’s a vicious circle from then on.

We can only pay more if we get more fans and sponsors etc. But that’s like telling a fire that you will give it more fuel only if it gives you more heat before you do so.

The second step is that the owners who are willing to spend over the salary cap should be allowed to, this will push up standards in the league and good teams will attract better sponsors and make more money and attract more fans.

The Hearns could do well promoting the Magic Weekend and the Challenge Cup but other than that I’m dubious.

To me, there really isn’t a need to get Eddie Hearn involved. It just needs the people in charge of the game to vacate their cushy positions and let the people that know rugby league change it for the better.

Darren Wrudd: Household names are created by the media, and so yes we have the potential to create many. What we do need is as much exposure to the media in a positive way that drives the interest and hunger from the general public to want to know more.

Unfortunately tied into a rather narrow minded Sky Sports TV deal means that we have very little presence in the main stream media and unless you look for it specifically, news can be hard to come by.

That needs to change and

Eddie Hearn might just be the one to drive it forwards.

Find and encourage the characters of our sport to raise their profile and create love hate relationships with the public, it’s amazing how a little fun rivalry with a cheeky smile can win many brownie points – who remembers Tommy Martyn’s foot of God against Leeds and that was 17 years ago.

David Bailey: Harking back to the 80s and 90s when Wigan had household names like Offiah, Hanley, Edwards, 
Robinson, I honestly believe it’s down to exposure. The likes of Ben Barba, George Williams and Kallum Watkins are all fantastic athletes but need to be on mainstream tv week in week out. I much prefer the BBC coverage of the games to Sky’s and if only the Super League show could get a decent slot we may see things improve. Rugby league players on the whole are far more approachable and in touch with the fans than footballers and we should be using the players to get little kids interested and involved to try and grow the sport.

The NRL kicks-off this week. what are you looking forward to? Who do you want to win, and who do you think will win it?

Sean Lawless: I will be watching the NRL this year, I think they are leading the way with online viewing with their new platform to watch every game. I always look forward to seeing how the English players do out in the NRL and how they rise to the challenge that is set before them.

I would expect Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters to be there or thereabouts this year but I think the fitting finale would be Storm v Cowboys; the final game of Smith, Thurston and Slater in an NRL Grand Final would be great.

Jon Lyon: I have watched the NRL avidly for the last fifteen years or so and can’t wait for it to start. So many teams have a point to prove. Will perennial wooden spooners Newcastle finally climb the table having recruited well?

Will the New Zealand Warriors find some consistency to match their talented squad? Can North Queensland give Johnathan Thurston the send off he deserves in the presumed last year of his outstanding career? Will Jarryd Hayne’s return to Parramatta help or hinder their season? Will Greg Inglis be the same player after a year out with a serious ACL injury?

As a Cronulla fan I am optimistic despite the losses of James Maloney and Jack Bird as the Sharks have recruited very well, in particular with the signings of Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan. However it is hard to see beyond the supremely consistent Melbourne Storm for the title. I’m going for a Storm v Roosters Grand Final with Gold Coast Titans taking the wooden spoon.

Robert Kenyon: I don’t follow any particular team I just like the look of how a certain team plays and watch their games, I like to watch good rugby. North Queensland Cowboys will win it I reckon.

Darren Wrudd: I am a little out of touch with the NRL if I am honest. I watch every televised Sky domestic game but I have had more important things to do with my time than pay for Premier and watch the NRL too. That said, I am looking forward to watching some of the big names now that Sky has secured some of the games to show over here too,particularly the State of Origin. Known as the pinnacle of the Aussie game, Origin games can be a thrill. After that I shall pick and choose and no doubt realise at some point that they are quite beatable and not all Supermen, except Pat Richards of course.

David Bailey: Now that the NRL is back on Sky I will be able to follow it a little more closely, I always look forward to seeing how the British lads go and l also keep an eye out for any former Wigan players. This year I will be keeping a close look out on the NZ 
Warriors with Anthony Gelling and Blake Green in the ranks.

It would be fantastic if they could achieve something as I think it would be a milestone Down Under, but even without Cooper Cronk I feel that Melbourne Storm have everything in their arsenal to triumph again.

They are one of the great sides of the modern game and make everything look so easy.