Off the Wall

The arrival of Christmas-New Year week reminds me that the off season is more than half over...and that the next footy season is a matter of weeks, rather than months, away!

And this year is certainly no exception - with the unofficial start to the 2011 season being brought forward by a couple of weeks. The Dragons and the Rabbitohs will play the unofficial start to the season - the Charity Shield - on 13 February, a couple of weeks earlier than usual.

That is to allow the premiers to travel to the UK for what I regard as a relic that ought to be consigned to history - the "World Club Challenge" - which in reality is the UK-Australia Club Challenge, played in the UK!

All NRL clubs have scheduled official trails from mid-February onwards, and some clubs will be taking part in inter-club and other trials from about the end of January.

So if you are really desperate, and over the cricket, then you might be able to get to a game in five weeks time!

The 2011 season will be as critical as any in my memory, with the possible exception of the debilitating "Super League" period.

It will surely see the establishment of the long promised "independent commission", and the new anti-siphoning laws might give the game the control over television scheduling it should never have surrendered.

We will also know by season's end, at the latest, whether the hoped for "Eldorado" in the form of a television rights deal close to double the current agreement materialises.

And, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will know whether, as I fear, the undesirable elements of betting on rugby league matches have already impacted on the game's integrity.

The outcome on each of these questions will be vital to the future health of our great game.

The Greg Inglis saga has been something we could have done without in the offseason, but when compared with the unwanted headlines the AFL has been enduring for days it has been a comparatively minor distraction!

The game ends the year in fairly good shape. I detailed last week a couple of concerns, but overall we enter 2011 in as good a condition as I can recall in many a year.

We will soon be losing the NRL's Chief Operating Officer (COO), Graham Annesley, who is standing for the Liberal Party in Labor's most marginal seat in the forthcoming NSW elections. He has served the game with distinction and his vast experience, not to mention commonsense, will be greatly missed.

A couple of weeks ago, an old friend of mine, and one of the most successful administrators in the game's history, John O'Toole, passed on. I neglected to pay tribute to him then, and need to do so in my final column of the year.

John was for more than a generation, the Secretary of the NSW Country Rugby League - in an era when the CRL wielded enormous influence in the game's administration, and contributed significantly to Blues and Kangaroos teams - and was the breeding ground for many Sydney clubs.

He extended to me his hospitality on more occasions I can remember - and was a strong supporter of the development of the game in PNG when I was an official there.

The passing of John O'Toole reminds me of the time when country league basically held the "balance of power" in the game, and was, in many ways, the game's real success story.

My wish for 2011 is a simple one - that the new independent commission will take an urgent look at the needs of the game in country New South Wales and Queensland - and put more resources into securing its future.

And to my readers - critical and supportive alike - a Happy and Safe Christmas!