At first glance, you could say the outlook for Rugby League at the start of 2022 is very similar to this time last year: we’ve come through a Covid-affected Christmas, we’re wondering how the pandemic is going to affect us when the season starts, and we’re looking forward to hosting RLWC2021 in the autumn.
But from my privileged viewpoint as the RFL Chief Executive, this is the most upbeat and optimistic I’ve felt about our sport for some time – certainly in the four years since I took on this role.
Those four years have been tough. That’s true for all sports, certainly in terms of the effects of Covid-19 since the early months of 2020.
However, the big positive that we can take from the unprecedented challenge of Covid is that the sport has had to think together and work together to get through it, whether in working with Government to secure loans for the professional game and grants for the community game, or in ensuring that our broadcast partners would have regular fixtures to cover, from weekly league matches to major finals at Wembley, the KCom Stadium and Old Trafford.
For several months, that new mood of co-operation has allowed one working group to focus on Governance and Realignment, and another to look ahead and plan more strategically for the future.
Those discussions between Super League Europe and the Rugby Football League remain complex and sensitive, and have required a huge amount of work, as well as significant give and take on all sides. We are not over the line yet, but we are close - with everyone involved working towards some exciting announcements in the coming weeks and months that should put this sport on a completely new trajectory. Ken Davy and his colleagues should be given great credit for their continued approach to these discussions.
And that has to be the mood for Rugby League in 2022 – positivity.
The Betfred Challenge Cup is due to kick off this month with the welcome return of the community clubs and teams to the competition in the First Round – and then the League 1 clubs including the Midlands Hurricanes in the Second.
The rounds will come thick and fast through the spring as all roads lead to an historic Final at the superb Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in May – when four sets of Rugby League supporters will have the chance to watch their teams make history, as the Challenge Cup Final is again preceded by the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup Final.
Imagine the statement we can send to the nation with a full house of almost 60,000 at Spurs, live on the BBC. That is a major focus for us all at the RFL in the early months of 2022.
Three weeks earlier, the Betfred Women’s Challenge Cup Final will also break new ground with the Final at Elland Road – a venue which I know has already excited the imagination of the players who have driven the development of Women’s and Girls’ Rugby League in recent years.
For the third time, the Women’s Final will kick off a triple header also including the two men’s Semi Finals – and won’t it be great to see those Semi Finals back at Elland Road, a ground with so much Rugby League history?
Later in the summer, Super League’s Magic Weekend will be returning to St James’ Park – after the reminder in September of why Newcastle is such a great fit for that celebration of our game.
And we’ll all be back in the North-East on Saturday October 15 for the long-awaited opening ceremony of RLWC2021, when Shaun Wane’s England face Samoa.
Our England teams will be another priority for us in 2022, on the same level as those big Challenge Cup events already mentioned, and the continuing development of the Women’s and Girls’ game.
We are determined to follow the example of Jon Dutton and his outstanding RLWC team by responding positively to the initial disappointment of postponement in 2021. It gives our England teams an extra 12 months to prepare, hopefully with fewer Covid complications – and the general awareness of Wheelchair Rugby League, in particular, will be much higher in 2022 as a result of the breakthrough broadcast coverage in 2021 of the Wheelchair Super League Grand Final on Sky Sports, and of three England internationals and the Wheelchair Challenge Cup Final on the BBC.
Those two England-France games in Medway in November were absolute humdingers, underlining the scale of the challenge facing Tom Coyd’s team from the reigning world champions – who offer another reason for optimism for French Rugby League in 2022, when Toulouse Olympique will join the Catalans in the Betfred Super League.
As in 2021, it’s important for us that our Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair teams all play Mid-Season Internationals on the same weekend in June – and there is tangible evidence of the increased unity in the game in the fact we have a free weekend for those internationals this summer.
I hope you’re as enthused as me about the prospects for 2022, from Cornwall to Newcastle – and not forgetting all three Cumbrian clubs in the Betfred Championship.
We’ll have Monday Night Rugby League on Premier Sports, meaning regular broadcast exposure for the clubs and players of the Championship who add so much strength in depth to the sport.
We’ll have Saturday afternoon Super League on Channel 4, providing the first regular live terrestrial coverage of the competition.
But we won’t ever take for granted the loyalty and quality of support we have received, through the difficult pandemic period and for the decades before that, from Sky Sports and the BBC – who will each broadcast dozens of live matches in 2022, as a result of the extension of Sky’s partnership with the Betfred Super League, and the BBC’s unprecedented commitment to the World Cup.
We should also recognise the support we continue to receive from Government – again, our relationships in the corridors of power are the strongest I’ve experienced in my three decades in Rugby League.
We have a new Vice President, Sue Taylor from Barla, coming on board in the summer to form the first all-female team with our President Clare Balding, and Mike Smith also continuing in office.
We have a new Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Ben Abberstein, who has joined us with Premier League football experience from AFC Bournemouth.
We want 2022 to be the year when Our League Life becomes a reality – a skills and social mobility hub in East Manchester, near the RFL’s new headquarters on the Etihad Campus, linking to a number of other regional hubs across the North, and symbolising the Rugby League Dividend Report which has proved so valuable since it was published in 2019.
I would highlight two further personal priorities. First, the Our League Active participant membership scheme for the community game – linking in its title both to Our League Life, and to the Our League web and app, which already has more than 200,000 members taking advantage of a wide range of features including live streaming of matches (most recently Leeds versus Wakefield on Boxing Day).
It’s something the sport has lacked, a direct link between the thousands of participants at all levels and the RFL as a governing body, the sort of thing that exists in all other major sports in the UK. It’s imperative for long-term sustainability, to allow us to invest more in the community game. We are immensely grateful to those stalwarts of the community game who have recognised this, and who have helped us lay the foundations in recent months for membership to go live this month.
Just as important, to all levels of Rugby League, is rebooting the Enjoy the Game campaign. Every survey we conduct highlights the value placed by parents, supporters and others on behaviour which is respectful of all others involved.
There were some worrying examples of standards slipping in the months after the Covid restrictions were lifted last summer. It wasn’t just a Rugby League issue - but we have to tackle it, if we are to ensure those friendly and welcoming touchline environments which will allow everyone to enjoy our sport.
I go back to the positivity I mentioned at the start of this piece. I know that I speak on behalf of my colleagues across Super League Europe, RLWC2021, Rugby League Cares and of course, the RFL – let’s make 2022 a year when we rediscover, or reaffirm, our love for Rugby League. There is so much to anticipate with relish.