RL Weekly: Crossing Codes, Crunching Numbers & Derby Dread

Lee Radford's move from league to union this week could be his biggest challenge yet
13:00, 06 Jul 2023

Lee Radford loves a challenge, and his move from league to union this week looks like his biggest one yet.

The popular former Castleford Tigers and Hull FC boss crosses codes to join Northampton Saints as defence coach, admitting that moving from league into union has always intrigued him. 

Having been flirting with possibilities in Australia’s NRL, this actually feels like a great move for the 44-year-old, who most recently helped coach Samoa to the Rugby League World Cup final. Not least because of the money he will be able to command in the 15-man game, but as league legends Kevin Sinfield and Andy Farrell have shown, there is a real pathway there for talented coaches to rise into the international set up.


Former St Helens centre Martin Gleeson and Warrington Wolves hooker Jon Clarke have enjoyed similarly successful moves, former Bradford Bulls pair Paul Deacon and Jamie Langley have been working with Sale and the great Shaun Edwards is with the France national side, as union continues to benefit from being taught skills learned in league. 

Indeed when Sinfield joined Leicester Tigers as defence coach in 2021, it was not so much about the Leeds Rhinos great jumping in at the deep end to learn a new sport - he had in fact experience of playing union having finished his playing career with a largely forgettable year at Yorkshire Carnegie. More so it was Sinfield doing the educating, as he took his own handbook of Rhinos defensive drills on to the Leicester training ground, replicating them with great effect. 

Much of the defensive skillset in league transfers well to union; the wrestling technique in the tackle to prevent an opponent from promoting the ball for example. So it is no surprise at all to see league stars prosper as union coaches. Radford, with his likeable persona mirrored with a combative professional approach, could prove another big success.

Elsewhere, more light has been shed this week on IMG’s plans to “reimagine” rugby league, with a “grading handbook” distributed to clubs and published on the RFL’s website. It’s not the sexiest piece of literature you will read, but it is another clear step towards a new era that is likely to significantly impact both the clubs included and excluded. And those appear to be key words, with clubs currently outside of Super League now finding out just how hard it is going to be to get a seat at the top table once promotion and relegation is scrapped. 

The handbook goes into detail on its scoring system to grade clubs, including key off-field criteria such as average attendances and TV viewing figures, both factors which are likely to favour the status quo ahead of the Championship clubs below, who inevitably are going to score less. 

The TV angle is especially bizarre. There is clear logic to it - the teams who are popular on telly are going to be best sellers of the sport to sponsors. But it is way more complicated than that, and just having higher viewing figures than another team does not automatically prove your marketability. 

Channel 4 games will always yield higher audiences than those on Sky, so even a dire Castleford v Wakefield Trinity derby on free-to-air terrestrial TV would outscore a thrilling golden point Wigan Warriors v St Helens derby on the same weekend on Sky. And such match selection basically comes down to a TV executive’s opinion, often as a flip of the coin for which game to show. 

There are other factors too, like viewing choice. A tasty Super League game on any channel when there is no other sport to watch, will do better than the same game on a big weekend of Premier League, a Champions League night or during an Ashes Test for example. 

When Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor had 18.5 million viewers glued to their TV screens in the early hours of a Monday morning in 1985, that was in part down to the glorious drama unfolding at The Crucible Theatre. But also in no small part because there were only three other channels that people could watch. Put Ronnie O’Sullivan on TV back then and the figures would be staggering. In short, TV viewing figures, although just a small part of this brave new world, feels like a risky science.

Speaking of rugby league on TV though, Hull FC and Catalans Dragons served up a cracker on Saturday in the latest pay-per-view stream for Our League. It was a pleasure to commentate on the game and the noise inside the MKM Stadium was fantastic. The home side came up short against the league leaders but Hull are starting to look like a Tony Smith side, with a lot of guts, some stubborn defence and a sting in the finish out wide. Their derby this Sunday lunchtime at Hull KR feels like a game that neither side can afford to lose if they are serious about a playoff challenge.

Other than the Hull derby, Salford Red Devils v Leeds Rhinos and Warrington Wolves v Saints look like the ties of this weekend. Wolves boss Daryl Powell is suddenly under pressure again, with his side falling off the top of the table with five defeats in six games triggering a tumble to fourth. Not the kind of form you want to welcome the champions with, and all was not well as Warrington lost at home to Leeds. 

Powell chose not to move from his viewing position for a long time after the full-time hooter, with his press conference then not taking place until late into the night. Pressure seems to follow Powell, and he needs his players to take some of it off him.

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