Forty-20is a rugby league magazine devoted to telling it like it is. So here is how it is: rugby league is now played in more nations than ever before. And the list is growing, as managing editor PHIL CAPLAN reports...
Next stop Ghana, India and Montego Bay
There was a time, not too long ago, when a British Army regiment playing a team of locals and ex-pats in Germany would have been considered an international; such was the paucity of rugby league played outside of the established nations.
Yet in mid-October just passed, an unprecedented weekend of international rugby league saw 12 nations play in six matches over four continents, encompassing 2013 World Cup Qualifiers in the European and Atlantic Zones, the first officially rated Celtic Test Match, a Trans-Tasman encounter and the birth of England Knights. And many more such games have been played far and wide in the weeks before and after that including, of course, the Gillette Four Nations and a two-match series between Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
A seminal moment? Not yet feast but certainly not famine and a possible pre-cursor for a common gap in domestic calendars that could showcase a genuine worldwide offering, which would make a supposedly geographically insular game so much harder to ignore.
So where next for the accelerating international bandwagon that has called in on Eastern and Northern Europe, the Middle East, Caribbean and Mediterranean recently? Believe it or not, Montego Bay, West Africa and India.
And, even more encouragingly, the process is not reliant on the drive of committed but essentially isolated individuals. According to Rugby League European Federation General Manager Danny Kazandjian, who spent three days briefing the RLIF in London in the lead-up to the Four Nations double-header at Wembley, it is much more sophisticated than that.
“Take what we are doing in Montego Bay in the West of Jamaica,” he says. “So far our development has centred on St Catherine’s and
Kingston in the East but working with
UK Sport International, who want to sell British sport around
Big in Belgrade: Italy and Lebanon fight out a draw in Serbia but the Azurri progress Marc Taylor the world, we will be setting up on the opposite side of the island based around 16 and 17 year olds in schools. The plan is that they will then start clubs within the school network,” he says.
If that has excited you, wait until you hear about the plans for Ghana. “It’s very long term and strategic,” enthuses Kazandjian, who cut his teeth working tirelessly to build the sport in Lebanon. “We currently have links to North Africa and South Africa - after their World Cup Qualifying exploits - are awaiting official government recognition, so we have targeted West Africa next and Ghana is the anchor.
“Again it is in concert with UK Sport International and universities as the best approach, with University of Ghana in Accra, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kamasi in the middle, University
Rugby league goes Bollywood 33
of Development Studies Tamali in the north and Winneba Sports College on the south coast.
“It is tied in to a unique international leadership development programme, which will see UK Sport International hand-pick some potential future leaders who have no experience of rugby league but receive generic training.
“Then, in partnership with Edge Hill College, a number of their students will travel to Ghana in May 2012 as a task force and deliver a sixto-eight week course on rugby league coaching and education. From there we will look to select administrators to spread the sport and there is already private sponsorship to support that.”
If all that has you salivating, the piècede résistancecould see you heading for the Rennies. Kajandzian continues: “The idea would then be to have a national university championships
1. The middle name of current New Zealand skipper and former Australian schoolboys sensation Benji Marshall is Quentin.
2. The third movie from American film director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino was the 1997 crime drama JackieBrown.
4 Forty-20 November 2011
Back to One
3. While traveling to England on the 1933-34 Kangaroo tour, the folicallychallenged Dave Brown - soon to be
Australia’s youngest Test captain aged 23 - had his hairpiece thrown overboard by team-mates. He took to wearing a brown leather headguard instead.
New Zealand and Wests Tigers
5. Along with being a former Victorian gin palace, the Cauliflower pub, Ilford, is nowadays one of London’s most popular music venues
4. The original rugby scrum caps were intended to protect players’ ears rather than the head, with flaps to prevent lugs being grabbed, rubbed or torn off
6. Before the 18year-old Benji Marshall made his first-grade debut for Wests Tigers in 2003, he played in a pre-season trial match against London Broncos Front row
Stevo and Eddie ANDY WILSON profiles a familiar face who’s going nowhere yet
ave you heard about Stevo?” I was asked at the Championship awards dinner in Manchester back in September. The rumour was that he’d decided to bow out gracefully at the end of the season, ahead of the new Sky deal kicking in next year.
I’m embarrassed to say that my first reaction was journalistic rather than sympathetic. Was it true, and if so, could I stand it up, to write the story for The Guardian? It wasn’t, so I couldn’t, but it was only then that it occurred to me just what a significant personality this former Dewsbury, Penrith and Great Britain hooker has become in British rugby league.
Stevo leaving Sky would probably make more of a splash with a London sports desk than any of the current Super League coaches being sacked. He has become so closely linked with the game in this country since the revolution of 1995-6, and rises above a relatively small sport in the same way that Sid Waddell is identified with darts, and Ted Lowe was previously with snooker - albeit the latter pair perhaps punching a little harder because of the national, terrestrial reach their sports enjoyed.
There is a more obvious comparison, of course, memorably articulated by John Ledger when he was the irreverent, mischievous league correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, well before he put on a more sensible suit as RFL head of media relations. “Stevo,” John asked from the press table at a Q&A function to mark the end of Shaun McRae’s first stint with Hull way back when. “First there was Eddie Waring, now there’s you. The question I’d like to ask is, how many more circus clowns are there in Dewsbury?”
John was joking, and Stevo loved it - one of his most admirable qualities, which are pretty rare in media and especially broadcasting, is the ability to laugh at himself. But the similarities between the two are striking. Stevo undeniably polarises opinion as Waring once did, although I’m not going to get bogged down in discussing his abilities as a pundit, being unqualified to do so in so many ways - as neither a regular viewer, nor a broadcasting pro. But like Waring, his involvement with and contribution to the game he loves has stretched way beyond the commentary box.
The most recent example of that came with his enthusiastic support of Broken Time, the stage dramatisation of the 1895 Northern Union split which recently concluded a northern tour. Mick Martin, the Bradford fan who wrote the play, knew Stevo only from the TV screen until they began working together on the project around four years ago.
“I liked Stevo from the moment I met him, and that’s only grown,” he says. “He is the precise same bloke in person as he is on TV - always alive with wit and talk, he doesn’t do subterfuge and he doesn’t like it in others. He’s sharp as a tack when you get to know him.
“What people sometimes seem to miss with him is that he genuinely eats, sleeps and breathes rugby league. He loves it, not just the actual game, 26 blokes knocking hell out of one another, but the whole world and history of it, with a pride and passion that goes deeper than you might see.
“From the first day I met him with Greg Boardman, the producer of Broken Time, his enthusiasm rubbed off on us. He was bursting to tell the story of 1895 and get that story out there. At every step of the way since he’s been as supportive and generous as we could have dared hope.
“Sitting beside him at Wakefield Theatre Royal a few weeks ago I had a sudden nervous moment - what if he hates it? Then I heard him crack out laughing and slap his knee - I figured I was okay then.”
Stevo’s involvement with Broken Time was merely the continuation of previous examples of his enthusiasm for the game’s past, as well as its present - a passion that is also crucial in providing historical perspective to Sky’s coverage. In his later years as a player in Penrith, he was already setting up a mobile exhibition that toured the New South Wales interior by train - as well as making sensible preparations for a future career in the media by spending time in Sydney newspaper offices, following the example of cricket’s Richie Benaud who made probably the best ever sporting conversion from playing field to commentary box.
The Gillette Rugby League Heritage Centre at the George Hotel in Huddersfield remains his pride and joy, and still remains criminally under-used by the game as a whole.
Then there is the fact that he could play a bit. “A lot of people forget that he’s a Lion - and a winning Lion,” says David Hughes, the London Broncos chairman who has become a good mate. “Then he went out there as a young lad from Dewsbury and captained Penrith at the end. We hear plenty about Mal Reilly, Dick Huddart and the others, but not so much about Stevo. He’s underestimated, massively.”
And also as a much-needed ally for rugby league in London. “Stevo lives down here and is a massive supporter,” Hughes added. “He can’t show himself to be because he’s got to be neutral, of course. [Whoops, sorry] That’s not to mention his museum, which I’m a sponsor of. He does a phenomenal amount of work for rugby league. But you get a lot of stick as a commentator.”
An appreciation of Stevo, which this has become, should also pay due deference to his zest for life. In Avignon for England’s game against France, no-one prepared for the game more enthusiastically, if you know what I mean - recalling his famous response to Great Britain’s 1992 win in Melbourne, when he predicted a big night and promised “to go right the way through”. But he was still up and about on Friday morning, looking forward to the game, and up for a chat and a laugh with anyone.
This is starting to sound worryingly like an obituary, which it most definitely isn’t. Stevo will be 65 at the start of next season but Neville Smith, Sky’s rugby league producer, was sufficiently relaxed about the retirement rumours to joke about them when we happened to sit next to each other on the flight out to Avignon, stressing that the old boy will remain a fixture for the duration of the new five-year contract, and possibly beyond. As someone who has criticised him in the past, and been irritated by him on a reasonably regular basis for the best part of two decades, I reckon we should appreciate Stevo for as long as we’ve got him.
“London is one of the world's greatest sporting cities and rugby league has an increasingly important role to play in helping to maintain this status... I am equally pleased to see a team like the London Broncos reclaiming their original moniker...” - BorisJohnson, LordMayorof London,proveshe’s notasdaftasthey say,onthepress releaseannouncing theclub’srebirth
“The rucks were something like what you see in Super League and the NRL on Saturday [for England v Wales at Leigh] and it was a much better game.” - Australiacoach TimSheens confirmshis disapprovalof BritishofficialPhil BenthamafterNew Zealandmadethe Kangarooswork hardinanintriguing tussleatWarrington thenightbefore
“I don’t think it was a send-off... but of course I am the Australia coach.” - guesswho,onthe poorcallthatwasno callatall,after controversial Wembleyreferee HenryPerenara electedtoleavebig unitTonyWilliams onthefielddespitea cast-ironhighshot onourcoverstar BenWestwood.
November 2011 Forty-20 5