24th April 2019, 14:42 | rfl

Ralph Rimmer - Easter, ruck changes and Enjoy the Game

Ralph Rimmer - Easter, ruck changes and Enjoy the Game

So how was your rugby league Easter? Better for some than others, obviously: better for ‘Haven than for Town; better for the Bulldogs than the Rams; better for free-scoring Saints than injury-ravaged Rovers.

But our job at the Rugby Football League is to assess the impact of the Easter programme on the game as a whole.

The most obvious way to do that is through attendances.

Super League celebrated a record-breaking round in the first half of the weekend, with an aggregate gate of 79,173 for the six matches on Thursday night leading into Good Friday – a fantastic figure, for which the clubs deserve immense credit.

We should also celebrate the efforts of the 14 clubs in the Betfred Championship, with a total of 15,646 watching their seven matches.

Throw in 4,308 for the five matches in Betfred League One on Good Friday – including the best part of 2,000 at Derwent Park to watch the West Cumbrian derby, and another four-figure gate to see the revitalised Keighley Cougars beat Doncaster – and you’re left with a total of 99,127 for 17 fixtures, all in England, in the space of 24 hours.

Tantalisingly close to six figures – so let’s not talk down the interest in our game, and how much it means to the towns and cities of the north of England.

The figures for the second half of the Easter programme aren’t too shabby, either. An additional 43,675 for the Betfred Super League, and 14,808 for the Betfred Championship – with no matches in Betfred League One.

That takes the aggregate to 157,610, from 31 matches over the Easter weekend. Again, pretty impressive.

But there is a growing debate about the pros and cons of requiring our players to double up over the Easter weekend – and as a governing body, it would be irresponsible of us not to take it seriously.

The Catalans Dragons have developed a tradition of attracting a big crowd to Gilbert Brutus for their Easter Monday evening fixture, shown live in this country by Sky, and it was great to see another five-figure gate generating a vibrant occasion this week.

In the Betfred Championship, York City Knights took another significant step in one of the game’s feelgood stories by beating Widnes Vikings in what I’m told was a terrific atmosphere at Bootham Crescent, and don’t dismiss the battling performances of Barrow, Dewsbury, Swinton and Featherstone even in defeats by Bradford, Leigh, Batley and Toronto respectively.

But on the other side of the coin, I’ve already referred to the injuries that contributed to a testing weekend for Hull KR – and there were plenty of battered, exhausted bodies by the end of the Easter Monday fixtures.

Is that fair to our players? Is it fair to our spectators? Could we do more with the Easter weekend as a whole, rather than leaving Saturday and Sunday free from professional fixtures – while finding a way to continue including such events as the Women’s Amateur Rugby League finals day, the first match of the Academy Origin series, and the Great Britain Community Lions trials?

That’s why we have added the Easter weekend to the agenda for our next meeting of Championship and League One clubs. We’ll take their views, and perhaps explore the possibilities offered by the other Bank Holidays, in May and August, as ways of compensating for the loss of the Easter double header. I don’t know where that will end but it is important to stimulate debate on these issues, always looking at ways to take the sport forward.

You’ll probably already have seen that some changes have recently been announced on the back of the Easter weekend, with the amendments and additions to the 2019 Referee Policy – an attempt to tackle the growing frustration at some of the skulduggery that’s been occurring around the ruck.

It’s not ideal making changes in mid-season – and I know there has been some criticism of this as a knee-jerk reaction. But sometimes as a governing body, you have to react. Frustration was growing in the weeks leading up to Easter. We’ve listened to the criticism observed, discussed internally and with Super League, and fixed something which didn’t seem to be working; hopefully these changes will help to clean things up.

One other area where we’ve acted behind the scenes in recent weeks, but I think is worth sharing here given the importance to the wider game, is stressing to the game’s head coaches that they also have a responsibility in terms of behaviour.

I do think we’re lucky with the calibre of individuals we have involved at all levels of the game, and their appreciation of their role in it – largely because they all love it. But there had been a couple of incidents recently of unmistakeable bad language in the close-up shots that broadcasters use to show the passion on the touchline and in the stand.

Our Compliance Department has written to all clubs and coaches reminding them of their obligations in this regard – especially linking to the Enjoy the Game campaign, which is so important to all of us at the RFL.

Touchline behaviour is crucial in terms of the rugby league experience at community levels, so we need our high-profile figures at the highest level – players and coaches – to set the right example. We’re not expecting them to be angels, and we definitely don’t want them to be robots. This was discussed with all the members of the RFL Council in December - and we thought it was timely to send out a reminder.

We all love the game; it’s so important that we try and protect and nurture it at all levels; we all play a role within that.

There are plenty of chances to Enjoy the Game this weekend – whether the Cas-Leeds Women’s Super League game which promises to be a cracker on Our League; the Sheffield-Halifax game that follows it, with Mark Aston’s Eagles flying so high in the Championship; or Toronto’s first home game of the season at Lamport against Swinton, on Sky on Sunday night.

And don’t forget the start of the new Southern Conference League on Saturday, with six games around the south of England and Wales. Yes, our roots are in the north of England, and that’s still where we’re strongest. But have a read of everything that’s happening in Hemel this Saturday, or tune into the pictures from Toronto on Sunday, and spread the word that the word is spreading.

Thanks for your support,