Off the Wall

This weekend's opening round of the NRL premiership is almost certain to prove once again that rugby league fans have extraordinary resilience - and are arguably the most resilient of all sports fans.

We may well see the largest total attendance numbers for an opening round - despite all the negative publicity the game has received over the last ten days or so, some of it warranted; much of it over the top.

The Broncos v Cowboys game might well have lost some of its attraction, now that the Titans rate more highly than the Cowboys, but there will still be 40,000 plus at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night. And the Sydney game, the Rabbitohs v the Roosters at the SFS should draw 30,000 plus.

And it will continue over the weekend, and into Monday night when the Bulldogs v Tigers will surely draw 30,000.

The "resilience" of the games fans used to be put down to rugby league's working class heritage...battlers used to getting the rough end of the pineapple.

That is now of less relevance given the game's diversified fan base.

I suspect all the games fans are battle hardened more than battle weary.

If ever there was a time when the game should have struggled to recover then it was during the Super League war of the mid-1990's.

It was divisive, bitter and damaging. But the fan base largely remained loyal to the game...even if loyalties were not just divided between clubs, but also between factions.

I believe the reason why our fan base has stuck loyal is really quite simple - it is all about the quality of the product.

If the 2011 season produces games of the quality of the pre-season charity shield, and the world club challenge matches, then the product will deliver in spades.

Now that Bill Harrigan has achieved his ambition of total control of the NRL referees panel, I hope his message to them this week is we have a great product, and it does not need much tampering with.

I have absolutely no problem with his edict that players abusing and back chatting referees be dealt with. It got out of hand last year with a couple of serial offenders (led by Johnathan Thurston) totally out of control.

One of the clear advantages we have over the rugby code is that stoppages are generally kept to a reasonable level. Our referees might not be the sharpest tools in the set, but they are nowhere near their pedantic and boring union counterparts.

I am counting on the Bill Harrigan-led referees to let the game flow...because that is when we see rugby league at its very best.

Fans are not happy with off field incidents, nor should they be.

But they move on very quickly - and move on to the games enduring strengths.

Let's hope its enduring strengths are on full show this weekend.