Rugby league’s culture war explained

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

Steve Mascord

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.


Elstone is looking to make an impact in rugby league ©SkySports

AFTER hearing a recent hour-long interview with the new Super League chief executive, Robert Elstone, I think it’s possible to discern a new cultural schism in the sport of rugby league.

On one side of this chasm are the Super League and NRL clubs, spoiling for a fight to maintain the status quo – and if there must be change, to lead it in the direction of their choosing.

On the other is everyone else, streaming their games on Facebook, holding Test matches in America, Nines tournaments in Holland and posting blogs and videos and podcasts. Oh, and Leeds.

Of course, one hole in this convenient scenario is that the chat in question was actually on an independent podcast – Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan’s Whippets and Flatcaps.

But that platform – it’s name, anyway – does fit with one of the apparent pillars of Elstone’s vision: the re-emergence of England’s north, the northern powerhouse. Like the 2021 World Cup, Elstone’s Super League is proud of the sport’s geographical roots.

The cultural cringe is gone; Eddie Waring might end up in a new logo.

By comparison, Elstone said Toronto made him nervous, there might be a case for fewer teams in Super League, he favoured getting rid of squad numbers and the free play after a turnover and said there were too many “splintered” international teams which made that arena in league look “fake”.

He is an unabashed admirer of State of Origin, which some Australian columnists are so fearful is going to become irrelevant in the face of international rugby league’s rise that they want Sam Burgess playing for NSW. Even arch traditionalist Phil Gould is favouring a shorter season and longer window for internationals.

Elstone likes Australian ideas like video referees at every ground and two referees.


The paradigm he reveres so much is, as we all know, extremely inward looking. Little appetite for expansion, trying to stop players leaving Australasia to represent their countries, a giant in-house media unit, limited interaction with the outside world and a focus on competition between two states.

State of Origin is still the pinnacle of rugby league in Australia ©Stuff

The Aussies are holding their own American event next year, “round zero” in California, with no involvement with the promoter who will take the World Cup to North America six years later.

But it makes sense that someone who has left rugby league for soccer would come back nostalgic for his childhood sport’s past and would disavow some of our game’s dreamier ambitions.

Having seen the geographic spread and financial might of the round-ball game, one wouldn’t get too excited about Toronto or an Irish team full of people who live by the M62. That makes sense.

But the Super League clubs wouldn’t appoint someone who disagreed with them.

If Elstone wants the British game more like the Australian scene then so do those who gave him a job. Challenge Cup back to May and a return for Great Britain also got a mention at the media conference where he was unveiled.

Wigan owner Ian Lenagan even said he accepted the preservation of promotional and relegation only as “a trade-off” – his words not mine.

Perhaps the aversion to the Super Eights has something to do with it being an RFL property (with them getting the money first) rather than an altruistic objection to the concept.

But pinning everything on the absolute conviction that a return to rugby league’s past will preserve its future will make many as “nervous” as the current experiments. 

It seems like an overly simplistic question and a flat end to this column but … what if it doesn’t work?

Steve Mascord

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