In the last two years rugby league fans have been treated to arguably the two most competitive tournaments in international rugby league history.
After the huge success of the 2013 World Cup, the recent Four Nations tournament down under has showcased some exhilarating rugby league and produced some nail biting finishes. New Zealand and Australia have proved that they are still the worlds best, but England are closer now than ever before to bridging that gap. In addition, within the space of a year, Samoa have gone from badly beaten World Cup quarter finalists to a leading international nation, and were unlucky to finish the tournament without a point to their name.
Expanding the international game has been a priority for some time but has previously been let down due to a lack of competitive nations outside of the big three. Now there seems to be a real appetite in the rugby league community for more international matches in a sport which has predominantly focused on domestic matters for years.
It’s for this reason that its disappointing to see that there will be no Four Nations tournament in 2015. Instead, England will host New Zealand in a three test series next autumn.
Sure, the series will produce some entertaining matches, particularly if the last two encounters between the sides are anything to go by, but there is a fear that the games will not produce a competitive edge or the interest that a tournament could bring.
The next Four Nations competition will be played in 2016 with Scotland having qualified as the fourth country alongside England, Australia and New Zealand.
The tournament needs to be annual not biennial if we are to expand the international game.
England could potentially go into the 2017 World Cup having played the Kiwis five times. They will have played Australia and Scotland once but will not have faced any other nation. We seem content to avoid international breaks during the domestic campaign, and a return to a mid-season fixture against France or the Exiles seems unlikely.
Comparing the sport to rugby union is something the league community shies away from as often as possible, but the international game excels in comparison. Sure, the sport is bigger worldwide and there are more leading nations, but the amount of fixtures and tournaments which are organised helps maintain the public’s interest in between world cups.
The Autumn international series generates huge media interest every year, as England host an array of nations at Twickenham. Then of course there is the Six Nations tournament, Tri-Nations series down under and the occasional Lions tour.
If expanding the international game is a priority then the Four Nations tournament should be contested and celebrated at the end of every season. Fans get to see their country face three opponents as opposed to one and the players get to test themselves against a range of opposition. The final also generates interest, popularity and of course, money.
As domestic rugby league enters its new era, it would be a shame to see the international game slip back into an old one.