By STEVE MASCORD
YOUR correspondent has learned in recent times that it’s very hard – probably impossible – to conduct business in the same industry as you are operating as a journalist.
Being a reporter is like being in a bike gang; it’s harder to get out of than get into.
It’s self-evident that if you have a commercial interest in rugby league, it’s difficult for people to trust you to be impartial when you report on the aspect of the sport which can affect your bank balance. You lose your credibility as a journalist.
But it works the other way, too.
It’s not as obvious as people needing to know when they hold meetings with you that you won’t go away and write about what is said. If you’re an ethical journalist, they should have expected you to be trustworthy in off-the-record situations before.
But they need to trust you not to write about it even if you hear it elsewhere. They need to know you’re going to actually surrender your journalistic sense of duty for the sake of the cause being discussed, that you won’t do your job as a reporter in some situations.
People, I think I’ve crossed that Rubicon – which is why you don’t read too much from me anymore. I want to make a contribution that goes beyond just keeping people in the sport accountable, as important as that role is.
…all of which is a long-winded way of starting this week’s Mascord Meets … with a disclaimer: I am working with London Nines promoter Graham Oliphant on making the truncated version of the sport … a thing.
If Sevens can get into the Olympics then surely Nines can be more than it is now, a professional tournament every few years and a bunch of smaller events run only for the participants, who are all amateurs.
No money is changing hands between myself and Graham, we don’t have a formal business relationship but when I spoke to the man running a 120 game festival in East London on July 21, I already knew the answers to some of the questions I asked for your benefit.
Here’s the thing: you probably don’t know about the London Nines because it’s an independent event. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of independent Sevens events around the world on which promoters earn a tidy income. We are on the cusp of Nines following suit, taking the sport of rugby league into new territories as it spreads.
“Look how Sevens has propelled rugby union and now it’s got it’s own brand and its own identity driving the sport forward,” Graham says from Seattle.
“Nines has fallen behind, it’s languished, it’s been left in that dusty drawer at the back of the RFL.
“We’re hoping people will get behind this and start taking an interest in the short form of rugby league and if we can connect up these other tournaments which are already underway by creating a larger umbrella product, this might be something we can start to develop to assist rugby league in general.”
Graham’s event will have six pitches, 11 hours of DJ music and 46 teams including those from Queensland, Papua New Guinea, West Papua and Fiji. It seems hard to believe people would fly to England for amateur Nines tournament but that’s exactly Graham’s point – everyone loves a good time and if you offer it, they’ll come.
“What do people want? What do I want when I go to a game? I want to know ‘can I get a beer at a good price?’. Can I get decent food? Is it going to be a decent spectacle? Is there a bit of music on?
“They’re pretty simple needs but it’s surprising the number of events and festivals you go to where they actually struggle to deliver that to the fan.”
Graham grew up in Cumbria playing rugby league, tried union at school, went back to League at Durham University and then moved to London in 1996. There, he met London Skolars founder Hector McNeil
“We used to mark the pitches out weekly with flour,” he recalls. “We used to visit the newsagent every week and buy 12 bags of flour which is something we’d probably get arrested for if we did it now.
“All that time I was quite fascinated by Nines and why it never got taken under people’s wings.
“I was actually helping Skolars transition in about 2003 into the semi-prop ranks and around that time we ran our first Middlesex Nines.
“And of course there’s been other incarnations, like York, in trialling Nines but it’s never really had that continuity. There’s been one or two years and it’s fallen away.”
When I asked Graham about the when the London Nines was a “kernel in the garden of your mind”, he replies: “That’s a good link because I was actually in Kurnell, near Cronulla!”
Turns out one-time-fireman Oliphant – ‘Jumbo’ to his friends – started talking to former Sharks president Damien Irvine about the potential of Nines.
Of course, the big question here is: if Graham (and those of us with similar views) are successful, will the authorities simply assume control of what he’s created and lawyer him into submission?
“We have to understand that everyone has different agendas,” says our man. “Everyone’s ultimately got the best ambitions of the sport at heart – or I’d like to think so – but clearly they’ve all got their own pressures and own agendas.
“What I’ve tried to do is take all that into account and say ‘look, I’m not coming in here telling you how to do it or take over the autonomy of what you’ve got going on’.
“But I’m saying ‘there’s a bigger picture here’. The fans demand the sport. It’s verging on criminal neglect we’re not using Nines as a format to at least promote the development of the game.
“We’re trying to get investors involved. It looks a lot better as a proposition if we can like (tournaments) all together.”
Nines are actually on almost every weekend somewhere in the world – something I’m now trying to promote at rugbyleaguenines.com. Just in the last two months there have been tournaments in Mudgee New South Wales, Auckland New Zealand, Parkes NSW, Larissa Greece, Oslo Norway and Rotterdam Holland.
Yet these tournaments are not linked in any way. They don’t share a sponsor, a rule book, a single person working across more than one of them. Logic suggests that is about to change, only a matter of who does it. So it might as well be people like Graham, myself … or you, if you want to help.
“In relation to the governing bodies,” Oliphant says, “I always have the approach, very much and open door policy.
“I’m always open to them coming and engaging with me.
“But sometimes you can’t lead a horse to water. I’m not going to sit around and wait.”