The 15th instalment of the Rugby League World Cup is just three weeks away and while die-hard league fans will be keen to see the best players in the world, this writer fails to see the hype.
Don’t get me wrong I watched with awe as Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and the Melbourne Storm clinch their first Grand Final win since 2012, and admired the resilience North Queensland showed to make their second decider in two years, this time without two of their best players and finishing the regular season with five losses in six games.
But the Rugby League World Cup isn’t as exciting to me.
There are a lot of reasons for this but let’s start with the most obvious.
Australia are inevitably going to win their 11th title. The aforementioned Storm trio will be hard to beat. Dally M Halfback of the Year Michael Morgan, State of Origin’s best player Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Valentine Holmes, Darius Boyd, and Will Chambers are just a few big names that feature in the squad.
New Zealand, the 2008 champions, and 2013 finalists look strong on paper. Jordan Rapana, Jason Nightingale, and Adam Blair all had strong seasons, plus Shaun Johnson is always likely to thrill. However the majority of the squad haven’t had as good a season as their Australian rivals.
The Kiwis haven’t beat Australia in five internationals dating back to May 2015, and other than two close matches, they have gone down 26-6, 34-8, and 30-12 in this year’s ANZAC Test.
And if you think England will threaten the Kangaroos, think again. As a nation, they have not beaten the Aussies in 22 years.
Moving on to my next point. Unless you’ve been living under a rugby league rock, you would know New Zealand’s Jason Taumalolo and Australia’s Andrew Fifita have both opted to play for Tonga. Despite both representing their respective nations and country of birth outside World Cup’s. Taumalolo represented Tonga at the last event.
If the players don’t want to represent their own nation, why should the fans get behind their country?
Playing for your country should be what every athlete in the world aspires to. Some are luckier than others. But it makes a World Cup seem less important if players are switching allegiances for whatever reason.
I understand that this is not the first time this has occurred and there are plenty of examples. Even New Zealand-born Felise Kaufusi is representing Australia. While Tonga are made stronger with the additions of Taumalolo and Fifita the credibility of the tournament has to be questioned. Players shouldn’t be able to switch countries so frequently.
There are however positives to this, players will be able to play at the World Cup for a nation which is in their family’s ancestry such as Lebanon duo Robbie Farah and Tim Mannah, and it makes the smaller nations more competitive, but that brings me to my next point.
Despite what league fanatics and commentators like to think, rugby league is not the best sport in the world, sure that’s a subjective opinion, but it’s hard to advertise the tournament as ‘the best players in the world are playing at the World Cup’ when those same best players in the world play in the NRL for 26 weeks.
Plaudits should be given to the attempt to grow the game, but even rugby league fans will admit, there’s nothing appealing about seeing the likes of Lebanon, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy, and the United States play rugby league.
Six teams automatically qualified for the tournament. Six of the 14 nations. World Cups should be earned, not given. Sure the hosts and previous winners deserve their place, but the others should be made to fight for their spot no matter how good they are.
The likes of Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and the like only have to go through a gruelling, long qualifying campaign to progress to the FIFA World Cup. Even 2014 winners Germany have to earn their spot.
That makes what they’re playing for seem more desirable and worth fighting for. Watching Australia smash Lebanon, France, and England after automatically qualifying won’t make a World Cup victory seem a huge accomplishment, like winning a World Cup should.
Qualifying for a World Cup shouldn’t be a luxury afforded to a nation. It should be earned. Watching Australia inevitably breeze through the campaign won’t give me the sense of pride winning a World Cup should.
As mentioned before, the Rugby League International Federation should be applauded for growing the game. But until the World Cup means something, I think the Four Nations will suffice.