Writing on rugby league this season has given me a new perspective of the potential woes of the sport.
Sitting in the stand as a fan, was I concerned with how many other people had turned out? Was I concerned with how full the opposite stand was? Was I concerned with expansion of the game, more challenging international fixtures or higher sponsorship deals?
No, I wasn't. In fact I gave none of the aforementioned problems a second thought. What mattered to me was that I was surrounded by other fans, signing the same songs and watching my heroes play I sport that I love.
If sports writers had the emotional attachment of a fan, they’d be worse for it. No one really wants to write a match report whilst they’re seething from a result.
I put it to you that not only are the problems of Super League redundant to fans who will continue to buy season tickets and turn up to watch their team, but that in a different light, the problems are nowhere near as bad as what critics might lead you to believe.
A lot has been made about rugby league attendances, and how the game has changed too much and fans are leaving it.
I’ve been doing some number crunching and I think every rugby league fan envisions rugby union as pulling in huge crowds week on week. For the last three seasons, the attendance at union games has been around the 12.5K mark. Last year in Super League, and in the years before, we've enjoyed figures around 9K.
In fact, the highest average attendances in the last five years have been around 10K. What does this prove? Well it points to the fact that we’re not as far behind the domestic union game than you might think.
At the Challenge Cup semi-finals over the weekend, what I saw and heard was dedication. Wigan vs. Leeds was packed even on a neutral ground, and from what I could see there were slightly more Wigan fans. Warrington on Sunday was even more impressive. I have never heard so much noise at Salford City Stadium and I think the Leeds v Warrington final will see a huge turn out at Wembley.
Which brings me to Wembley statistics. Between 1998 and 2002, the average Wembley attendance was 66,309. Between 2007 and 2011 was 81,464. I don’t think turn out is a problem.
Expansion is a rugby league buzz word. We've heard it all before. 'The game needs to be bigger', 'We need to plant teams elsewhere to drum up interest', 'We need a bigger international game', and so on.
To be honest, I’d love it if rugby league was the same scale as union, but I don’t think the fear of losing players to another code should be the inspiration to improve the game.
So many times people are worried that the lure of union will take players away from league, and sometimes it does. However, we shouldn’t be in fear of such outcomes. Look at Sam Tomkins for example. I’m sure he had offers on the table but stayed with league because it suits his skillset.
If rugby league is to expand it must to the benefit of the sport, and not to battle the competition from other codes. People are quick to recall Crusaders folding and the poor attendance for Broncos games, but to contrast that you've just got to look at Catalans, who enjoyed a bigger average turn out than St Helen's last year and, for a side created just over ten years ago, I'd say that's pretty good.
Personally, though, I like rugby league how it is at the moment and I like that it’s just ours to enjoy. It is far from the 'minority sport' tag, which is thrown around all too easily. If you want to see a minority sport, check out underwater rugby.
The England v Exiles fixture took a lot of stick this year, especially after so many top flight players pulled out of the second game. However, to look at it from a different perspective, and the fixture offered some of league's top young players the chance to experience to get a run out in such a serious fixture.
I’ve had the conversation countless times about the difference between union fixtures and league fixtures at this level and I’ve written about it so now I’m going to accept it.
I don’t think the problem lies with the RFL, there are constant attempts to get a competitive fixture and the Exiles served the purpose. The reality is, you can’t just nip over to Australia or New Zealand every time you want to test your mettle and Ireland, Scotland and Wales just don’t offer the same level of competition that they do for England in union. If anything, the ball should be in the court of the rest of the UK to step it up, especially with the World Cup being played here in just over a year's time.
I end with Bradford Bulls because it would be impossible to discuss the difficulties of the sport without mentioning them.
There have been few news stories more saddening of late for the rugby league world than the Bradford Bulls crisis. Bulls would be a serious loss to Super League and I give you this as an example where the sport suffers. I, like everyone else, am not too clear on how or why they were allowed to get into this situation - cue the licensing and the lack of checks and balances debates.
What I will say, though, at this point, is that every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining here is the demonstration of sheer strength shown by those at the club who’ve found themselves in an impossible situation. Coach Mick Potter and his staff – including his wife, no less – were all sacked, and while Potter had every right to wash his hands of the club, he's stayed put, coaching the Bulls for free. His is a single act of kindness is one which typifies the sport of rugby league and says 'Yes, there are problems but when things get tough, we’ll stick together.'