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Hargreaves' sad exit is yet another wake-up call

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George Riley George Riley | 20:47 UK time, Thursday, 20 September 2012

Amid all the excitement of the Super League play-offs this week, there was another reminder of the challenges rugby league still has to conquer.

Bradford prop Bryn Hargreaves' decision to pack in the game at 26 is dreadfully sad, and demonstrates that whatever fireworks the play-offs produce, the skies they briefly illuminate remain dark.

My love of rugby league allows me to get lost in its brutal brilliance for 80 minutes each match day. But off the pitch the battle is for mere survival, a reality explained so eloquently by Hargreaves in his damning assessment of the health of the game.

On the day Leeds Rhinos players checked in at Leeds-Bradford airport for their do-or-die play-off date at Catalan Dragons, a young lad down the road was turning his back on a sport he has fallen out of love with.

Hargreaves is a highly rated professional, much respected at St Helens, Wigan and Bradford - three of the dominant forces in the Super League era. But his experience of administration at Odsal this year has been enough to confirm his disillusionment, and underline a desire to escape the financial uncertainty of a sport that could never have provided enough to safeguard his future.

In simple terms, Hargreaves has found another job - a better job, a more reliable source of income, one that will allow him to provide for his family without worry. His reference to players being "treated like pieces of meat" at Bradford is borne more of the hopelessness of administration than the day-to-day existence of a rugby league player, but it is another wake-up call for the game.

Hargreaves won the Challenge Cup with St Helens in 2008. Photo: Getty

Last season I wrote an article highlighting what can happen to rugby league's top names once their playing days are over, without the financial cushion that Premier League football or rugby union can provide.

Worryingly, this season has seen a few players opting for different career paths before their best playing days are even over. Hargreaves' announcement comes just weeks after team-mate Ben Jeffries quit to become a coal-miner in Australia, while the Bulls' joint-captain Matt Diskin, having admitted his season has been "scary", has been working hard on a property business. Castleford winger Nick Youngquest, meanwhile, has quit at 28 to pursue a modelling career.

Dozens of players from other clubs are launching sports fitness and personal training businesses to supplement their earnings and afford themselves a safety net in uncertain times.

The obvious questions are always directed back at the Rugby Football League, who tend to get the blame for all of the game's hardships. Chief executive Nigel Wood remains defiant about the health of the sport, pointing out that it remains strong in terms of its crowd numbers and profit margins. And he remains committed to the controversial licensing system over promotion and relegation.

But the underlying feeling among journalists and fans is one of concern. Why are clubs struggling financially under a system designed to provide stability? Why are players like Hargreaves deciding enough is enough? Is the current 14-team Super League and eight-team play-off system still the way forward?

These are the most common questions I get asked by the sport's detractors, while in every rugby league programme we do on BBC Radio 5 live there is always an "is rugby league dying?" angle.

Rugby league is not dying. But that is not to say the sport could not do with a lift.
The RFL is often criticised for not maximising its marketing of the sport, yet this week has seen arguably the finest publicity work yet, with the "Rugby League of the Extraordinary" campaign.

Of course, the very fact there is a need to do something like this poses questions, but the hope is that such extravagant promotional efforts will attract new fans to a sport that seems to prefer criticising itself to celebrating what it is: a very popular minority sport with a loyal fan base and terrific athletes who provide breathtaking entertainment.

Next year's home 2013 Rugby League World Cup provides the best possible platform for a sport that must ensure its foundations are secure before it can expand.

As for the play-offs, a couple of one-sided opening-week fixtures again drew criticism of the top-eight structure, but that system has still produced the prospect of a gripping finale from here on in.

Champions Leeds came through as Warrington wobbled, and Wigan and St Helens both demonstrated their Old Trafford hunger. It means the Rhinos now go to France, having been outplayed there last month, where they must win or relinquish their title.

Wigan still look the pick for me, devouring the Dragons despite a quiet night from star man Sam Tomkins, and the Warriors join Saints with their feet up this weekend.

Warrington will need to dig deep against Hull FC to avoid collapsing in the play-offs for the second successive year.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thought we'd done this one?

    Three people in my NHS service have quit this year to take up different, more secure jobs. Whist going through the current tender we are being treated like pieces of meat. Unsure about what's going on and whether we'll have a job at the end of it. Is this a wake up call for the NHS? No it's not. It's called life.

    Incidentally, I changed career paths at 33 to go into the mental health sector of the NHS from a competely different line of work (Insurance).

    If anything, the 'wake up call' is a reminder that RL isn't PL football and unless you are one of the best, you won't be able to retire at 35. Like most of the rest of the working population.

    And nobody is forced into a RL career. It's their choice and they know the score.

    If I was good enough, I'd do it.

  • Comment number 2.

    The financial realities are that there are too many clubs in too small a catchment area the attempts to expand beyond the M62 corridor are clearly not as successful as they need to be.

    The only real hope is the Oz RFL authorities (who might want to maintain some kind of genuine international competition) providing the sort of investment needed to expand the game.

    Otherwise, the owners of RFL clubs with their own ground should be looking seriously at conversion to Union possibly running a parallel junior union side through the leagues to the Championship, converting the players that can and then going for promotion to the Premiership.

    Good young players looking at their options will see the riches in Union, make a sensible choice and then it becomes a downward spiral

  • Comment number 3.

    This story, both here and in other media is absolute rubbish. Sport cannot guarantee security. No one was a piece of meat. The truth is clubs go into administration. Bradford is now back for another season. As has been commented, any company can retrench. We live in an uncertain world. It always has been.
    I know at the GM car plant in Ellesmere Port, there is uncertainty every time a new model is to be introduced as to whether the production will go elsewhere. Concessions are extracted from the workers, and they work for another model cycle. Then the uncertainty again.
    If Bryn wanted to do something else, good on him. However, his attitude toward a game that has given to him quite a bit financially is ungrateful. Fact is he is on the downward slide...Wigan, St Helens and now with a team not doing well any more in SL and not for a little while. This is not a big loss George.
    RL is doing OK. For those who want to move on, all the best. There is plenty of talent out there.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Of course, the very fact there is a need to do something like this poses questions, but the hope is that such extravagant promotional efforts will attract new fans to a sport that seems to prefer criticising itself to celebrating what it is: a very popular minority sport with a loyal fan base and terrific athletes who provide breathtaking entertainment."

    The sport isn't a minority sport. It is played all over the country. RL exists outside of SL.

  • Comment number 5.

    agree with Raycee - this pieces of meat business is something from the past -players at top flight arent that any more- and if they'd like to see some folk who are ,My mrs and a couple of her friends were made redundant 16 months ago - with hardly any notice and only 1 has been able to get full time employment since- there are many many people far worse off- so lets drop the meat tag please

    Yes, Bradford players were at a club who were not run well but
    Mr Hargreaves is leaving to get a better paid more secure job and the best to him- its his choice i always thought he was a decent hard working prop, but like Raycee says - the game isnt dying and has plenty of good people who are trying to do their best -

  • Comment number 6.

    The real question is why the BBC / George choose to do a blog about a bitter player leaving the game the same day the next round of the SL play offs start. What does Bryn really know about the finances of the game in general? Record TV viewing figures, record top level attendances, 70k+ crowds at 2 finals every year, burgeoning international game. This obsession with the slightest negative story about Rugby League (particularly from the BBC) is very poor, particularly when George claims to be an RL fan.

  • Comment number 7.

    While its disappointing Bryn has decided to retire at 26, at least he has not retired through injury. In truth, Super League players are far better looked after than their counterparts in the National League or top level players 20 years ago plus who had to supplement Rugby earnings with full-time jobs with little in the way of physio, conditioning and nutrition as enjoyed by today's players.

    While I understand to an extent Bryn's frustrations, he will do righ to not forget about the many Office staff at the Bulls who were laid off with no redundancy packages and the many businesses, most Local who will have had to accept x pence in the £ plus coaching staff who coached these pieces of meat, for nothing. The players at least were creditors and got paid.

    The fact with Rugby League, like most Sports is that only the very Elite can afford to live off a career when they retire. Perhaps the newly formed players Union 1eague3 can spend time and resource training and educating players on 2nd careers, similar to what they do in Horse Racing, so when players do retire or quit, they have skills to fall back on and hopefully find work.

    Considering we have 2 crackers of play-offs this weekend however, not a great time to raise this story.

  • Comment number 8.

    Rugby League players will never earn what Footballers get and yes there are better paid jobs than being a RL Player and as mentioned well done to Hargreaves if he's gone on to get a better paid and more secure job, but I know if I had the choice of being paid to play sport and get a lot of free time I'd jump at the chance.

    Yes I'm sure players are treat like a piece of meat and lets be honest that's what they are, just like the rest of us, we are all paid a certain amount to do a job, some people get paid more because they are better at that job or because there are fewer people with that skill, I'm afraid it's simple supply and demand, Sam Tomkins and Doctors are paid more because they are in demand and there's a short supply.

  • Comment number 9.

    It is a fair point to highlight Bryn Hargreaves as limited loss, 1 player from a weekly turnout of 240 players in SL - but it is a metaphor for what he represents - he isnt going part-time to allow an off field career, he is retiring.

    The Bradford example in my opinion is nothing to do with the RFL and licensing, they ran at a loss and went pop - arguably the RFL should have actively moderated better but businesses go pop all the time - Where the RFL lack clarity is, by merely sanctioning Bradford in points to miss the play-offs (Which they have for the last few years anyway) is no sanction at all - New-Co is debt free and the on-field franchise has IMPROVED becuase of it - while creditors suffer. If I were Salford, London, Cas, KR and others who missed the play-offs - I would be considering this time next year once I knew I would miss the play-offs, tactical administration, points deduction and start next season debt free, franchise safe and in the black - the RFL have set an ugly precident of ALL OUT help to bail SL clubs.

    Where the RFL need to improve is that RL has become a sport "not afraid to try things" but we try too many things. We need to have the sport do fewer things WELL as opposed to lots of things poorly.
    Promotion and Relegation in itself was not the problem, it was the bad business decisions it forced and the ransacking effect it had on clubs and players. But if the RFL aren't going to FORCE financial management and make that licensing credible - for instance Bradford in admin, Hull KR running at an unsustainable loss (Thier CEO's words not mine) and they are on grade B licenses - it is flawed.

    The people who love Rgby League do so in spite of some of the organisation, not becuase of it. There is constantly the feeling that the RFL operates a non-standard policy to things becuase there is so little transparency and openness. Wakefield fans after their dreadful 2011 must be wondering where the "RFL rallying round an historic giant of the sport was" for them? And the mergers - it is just too awful to rehash - yet we continue to protect and preserve some above others.

  • Comment number 10.

    In the past young people who had other career options often stayed away from football. My dad was offered the opportunity to play professional football in the old Scottish First Division back in the 1940s. He decided to train to become an engineer instead. Similarly my best friend was offered to a contract to play in the old Football League Division II in the 1970s, but he turned it down to go university.In those days there wasn't a lot of money in the game and it was also a short career.

  • Comment number 11.

    Where has all this talk about 14 teams being too many come from in the past few weeks. I don't hear that from the fans that much, if at all. Seems like bored journos kicking up a stink to try and sell a story on the sport because the standard hasn't been good enough this year. Its the same journalists who were moaning that youth wasn't being given a chance and too many aussies were coming over a few years ago. Now youth is getting a bigger chance than ever and the standards have dropped, why? Years of neglect in the youth programmes. We have a sport that mirrors the NRL. But where the NRL get it right the RFL gets it so badly wrong. If the game needs more money, then the RFL has the responsibility to fund the sport and they have made to serious misjudgements over the last few years. Stobart sponsorship, need i say more... Cutting clubs is not the solution! The RFL getting their house in order is.

  • Comment number 12.

    @sugulfp - completely agree with you, LondonXIII and others on here.

    George, I appreciate the fact you champion the cause of RL, but in the scheme of things this is a non-story. I am sure Bryn Hargreaves found the situation difficult at Bradford and good luck to him, but I am disappointed in this article.

    More detail on the next play-off games would have been a better read. When the season is over we can all chip in with sensible ideas for the RFL to ignore!

    If I had enough talent to play in Super League, I would jump at the chance as would many others - for not much pay either. For those that think that jumping to Union is the solution for megabucks, look no further than Kyle Eastmond - the bench is a cold place to sit, no matter how much you are paid. I also suspect that Union clubs will be increasingly unwilling to fund expensive signings of RL players that are unlikely to work out for either party. Both codes should stick to youth development.

    PS come on Dragons!

  • Comment number 13.

    Agree with a great deal of what has already been posted TBH.
    1) Atrocious situation at the Bulls with the clubs former managment(s) completely to blame. A symptom of the health of the game? Don't think so.
    2) Yes an atrocious situation, but the situation is being played out in many business in the Private Sector- well run or not- across the country effecting many people. Most of us if made redundant have to look for work, be it in our field of expertise, or a new direction.
    3) Bryn treated like a piece of meat. The administrator behaved poorly- again I would say 99% of anyone who has been through redundancy as a result of administration would say exactly the same. Quite often, although Creditors, the employees are often last on the list to be deemed necessary settle with.
    4) Disparity between wages of the top players and workhorses- fact of life whatever the sport. He'll have still have been on a wage comparable to a well paid professional person and well above average wage doing something he loved. I'd have given anything to live the life of a pro athlete and so would many others. Is it more a case of he wasn't receiving any offers from other clubs and his ego dented?
    5) Only PL Soccer players and perhaps top F1 drivers could afford to retire and never work again in their mid-thirties. Again a touch of naivety from Bryn.
    6) A new direction/ new employment. Good on the lad. Obviously has something about him in that he's capable of making a switch to a career outside of the game and has the gumption to do it.

    I have no beef with Bryn Hargreaves. As a Sts fan I valued his efforts for the team and he was an honest solid, grafting, workhorse who gave 100% and earned his place in a successful side.Sadly though that, in any walk of life or sport, quite often doesn't mean you get recognition or appropriate financial reward.

    I do have issue with the BBC's unavoidable knack of swooping on any news with a negative angle on Rugby League and making a massive issue out of it- even more so from George Riley who claims to be such a huge fan of the game! And furthermore when there is positive news or a great event it's whispered quietly or reported quickly.

    The RFL have had a mare seemingly since Richard Lewis departed and do however need to:-
    1) Get a major Blue Chip sponsor and engage in a massive marketing campaign countrywide- that may also involve getting a live SL game on Terrestial TV each weekend on the BBC or other channels to ensure the game has continued profile.
    2) Ensure the new Chairman is of sufficient stature, presence, track record etc. to make sure this happens. And it might take something as radical as employing Clive Woodward to do it!
    3) Reduce the play offs to Top 5- 8 rewards mediocrity.
    4) Market its best assets- the players!- better. Give them profile. The Burgess brothers, James Graham, Sam Tomkins, Myler, Morley, Ellis, Sinfield etc. Each side has a player with presence, character and a story to tell which can sell the game! Get them in the Broadsheets, on TV, glossy magazines and get them recognised.

    There are many many positives out there, let alone the prospect of the National Team next season being potentially as competitve as they've been in a long time with a very talented crop of lads kicking on. The RFL and its stakeholders- namely the BBC!- need to do more and shout louder!

  • Comment number 14.

    During in the 1980's most of the Rugby League players from Featherstone, Castleford and Wakefield were doing shifts down the pit during the week and getting paid about 10-30 quid a game and they were considered lucky.

    Playing Rugby is like most careers, you invest your time and energy in it and you are vulnerable to employers, economics etc.
    The ones I feel sorry for are the kids who join rugby clubs at 16-19 years old and get cut by the club at 20. They never make it and at 20 have to try find a job when they often don't have the education or experience.

  • Comment number 15.

    Apart from the 2/3 clubs that have a sugar daddy benefactor , the rest of the super league clubs are walking on very thin ice , so consquentially if a young man desides
    to follow a career in RL he his taking a big risk . Bryn Hargreaves was never better
    than average . He has desided to retire from the game at 26 . He has got himself
    a job , he should be very fit , so whats his problem . Bryn there are plenty of young men who would give their left testacle to be in your shoes . As Joe Gormley said to me `get yed den , & goo fer it `.

  • Comment number 16.

    Shock horror. Overpaid player who was never really good enough retires because no other club wants him, seeks to blame everyone else. Is this really a "wake up call"? No doubt Bryn was highly thought of at Saints, Wigan and Bradford. But not that highly thought of to be offered a new deal at any of them.

  • Comment number 17.

    The RFL has been mismanaged for years. Their concentration on expansion has failed while at the same time they have helped kill off traditional clubs. Stupid and unfair decisions like relegating Oldham from the Super League even though they finished above Paris (where are they now?) and keeping Huddersfield in it when they finished bottom four years in a row have lost many fans from RL's own heartland. Imagine the Premier League spending a lot of money bringing in a team from Dublin and keeping them in the league no matter what at the expense of, say, Stoke City while also keeping Aston Villa in though they finish bottom every year - it would lose all credibilty and that's what's happened to RL. RL fans in Rochdale or Oldham can't just start supporting Salford, they give up on the game. There is now basically one club (Salford) to cover Greater Manchester between Wigan and Huddersfield.

  • Comment number 18.

    #Jeremy Renwick

    What a load of rubbish. RU supporter are you? Take your silly comments somewhere else.
    IF you are a RL fan then shame on you, the game does not need kicking with badly thought out drivel.

  • Comment number 19.

    @Jeremy Renwick

    Poor attempt. Must try harder!


    Oh dear! Why is it that the BBC jump on any negative sounding story and make something more of it than it really is? Hargreaves was an average prop. He worked hard but he did nothing special. So he is now a bitter average prop because, like others have said, going through administration is a rough deal for anyone but at least he got paid something, unlike his coach and unlike many of the backroom staff at Bradford who worked for nothing.

    Now, George, can you please write a good piece on the play offs? Not something negative about the crowds or the lopsided games, but something positive, constructive and exciting about the action that is actually worth talking about and is actually happening in rugby league right now. That would be great and I look forward to a blog from you on that before it's too late and the play offs have, er, played off!

  • Comment number 20.

    RL players are generally from working class backgrounds and would be lucky to get anything near £20,000 doing a job they didn't even like. RL allows them the cahnce to earn £50,000 - £250,000 a year doing a job they love. If they ever started earning so much money that they were set for life at 35 then i'd maybe stop watching the game. One of the things that i love about the RL is that players are down to earth & still hang out with their mates outside of the game. All the players i have met are decent, down to earth guys with their feet on the ground. I have no time for premiership footballers or F1 racing drivers They just seem like spoilt brats to me.

    Most of us would love to have played professional sport. Hargreaves is changing career at 26. He wont be the 1st or last person to have done that. Good luck to him but he wont be missed. I watched almost every game he's played for the Bulls and to be honest dont think his hearts ever been in it.

    The game does need to work hard to increase its profile. Going down to 12 teams is a step backwards. The on ly people that want it are the chairmen who want to increase their own pockets. They should be going to SKY and getting MORE money not cutting the number of clubs. I'd like to see 16+ clubs and the game making a real effort to become nationwide. the fact is having clubs in Rochdale or Oldham wont turn on the viewers. It just reinforces the BBCs attitude of flat caps & whippets

  • Comment number 21.

    The alarm clock is broken and no one wants to, or is capable, of repairing it!!!

  • Comment number 22.

    Why do these BBC blogs concentrate on negative stories about rugby league ? Can't we have some that promote the game ? Other blogs on other sports seem to be able to manage it rather than trying to be controversial.


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