Tomorrow night sees the return of Super League, thus signalling the end of the most eventful winter hiatus I can recall, and the return of Farrell’s Forum.
The off-season has brought about several notable changes to rugby league as we know it. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of securing the future financial status (albeit not directly) of the game at the top level, the RFL has announced a controversial, new three-year sponsorship deal with the Stobart Group.
Controversial because the haulage giant isn’t actually paying a penny to the 14 clubs in what will now be known as the Stobart Super League.
Instead 100, of its 2000-strong fleet will be emblazoned with a combination of the Super League logo, and teams and player pictures.
The level of marketing exposure which Super League will look to garner from the deal is reputedly worth up to £2.5 million per year, and was supported by a majority of nine of the fourteen Super League clubs.
Ironically, Super League XVII will kick-off at Widnes’ Stobart Stadium as they face Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Another fresh, interesting, and in my opinion, positive development in rugby league during the off-season is the foundation of a new players’ union, the Super League Players’ Association, chaired by St Helens’ Jon Wilkin.
The SLPA, which is yet to be officially recognised by the RFL, aims to provide an outlet for players’ voices to be heard, as well as a counselling service, and provide representation for players during wage negotiations and contract talks.
Rugby league players who previously required union support were represented by an arm of the GMB Union, however with the creation of the SLPA, they now have a union to address issues specific to rugby league, which should swing the balance of power more favourably towards the players.
I feel, at this point, that I should out myself and admit to something I’m not entirely proud of or comfortable with.
I love Celebrity Big Brother. There, I’ve said it. It’s out there.
It’s a guilty pleasure and I’m not going to try to defend it. However, this year’s CBB was made all the more watchable, not for the bevy of buxom young ladies that inhabited the house (although that helped), but for the altogether more manly sight of cross-code rugby legend, Gareth Thomas.
During his time in the house, Thomas became something akin to a nation’s sweetheart.
He never once became embroiled in any bitterness or in-fighting, he was charming, caring, down-to-Earth and hilariously funny at times, not least when dressed as life-sized sushi.
While in the CBB house, Gareth Thomas did his, and the game of rugby’s reputation no end of good with the manner in which he conducted himself and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him as part of the CBB experience.
I was also very pleased to see Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock receive and MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, for his services to rugby league.
Peacock has been a colossus in Super League for well over a decade now and thoroughly deserved the accolade from Buckingham Palace.
While Farrell’s Forum took a winter break, Rugby league lost a true icon of the game when Australia and Hull KR legend, Arti Beetson passed away in November, at the age of 66 after collapsing while cycling.
Beetson, an Aboriginal, played in 29 Tests for the Kangaroos, and captained their 1975 and 1977 World Cup winning teams.
He became the first indigenous Australian to captain his country in any sport, and he will be remembered fondly by the rugby league community.
And lest we forget that another rugby league great made his final bow on these very shores during the Gillette Four Nations at the end of last season.
Darren Lockyer, arguably the greatest player of all time hung up his boots at the end of 2011 after an illustrious career down-under which spanned 16 years at the top level of the game.
The likes of Lockyer do not come along very often and it was pleasure to have witnessed one of the true greats first-hand.
During the Christmas period my favourite piece of sporting news was the one involving Manchester City player, Mario Balotelli dressing as Father Christmas, driving around Manchester and distributing cash to stunned passers-by.
If only Castleford’s Richard Owen had had the same level of Christmas cheer during the festive period.
Instead, the talented full-back was arrested for assaulting a man dressed as Father Christmas. Reports that it was Mario Balotelli are entirely fabricated.
More controversy rocked the game when the Hull FC trio of former Great Britain player, Martin Gleeson, the club’s Chief Executive, James Rule, and conditioning coach, Ben Cooper all received bans for anti-doping irregularities.
The bans relate to Gleeson’s failed drugs test last May, with Rule and Cooper both being “complicit in the lies” that followed that failed test.
There are a host other topics that I wanted to cover in today’s column, such was the nature of the off-season, but I have been beaten by the word count.
No time to mention Scarborough Pirates’ preparations for the forthcoming season, although I will address that issue in depth next week.
No time either to mention Scarborough RUFC’s free-scoring try-magnate rugby league convert, Tom Ratcliffe, who is also hoping to turn out for the Pirates at the conclusion of the rugby union season.
I wait with an excited anticipation for the forthcoming rugby league season and I’m sure there will be much to debate during the course of the year.
I look forward to keeping you up to date with all the local and national rugby league news.
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