The NRL might not be too concerned by Super League’s venture to its stomping ground this weekend, nor the fans worried about the potential ramifications of this historic visit. But there is more than meets the eye about Hull FC’s clash with Wigan at Wollongong on Saturday evening.
At first glance this game seems nothing more than a gimmick, a chance to keep the struggling English game from treading water. And what better way to do this than to take it to the only place in the world where Rugby League has a large presence in the media and isn’t hidden behind the exploits of Manchester City, or continually confused with its sister code?
When Australian fans settle in to watch what will be, in effect, a bit of pre-season entertainment viewed in lieu of any local action, they will surely wonder why the NRL haven’t yet played a game in the UK for competition points.
The simple answer is this: the NRL wouldn’t gain the same amount of exposure, nor attract the same attention from potential commercial investors, as the Super League will by bringing a game down under.
This might just be the smartest move the RFL have ever made and it comes on the back of their expansion into Canada with the Toronto Wolfpack, who have progressed to the second tier of the Championship and already have their sights set on a Super League birth in the years to come.
The NRL, meanwhile, appear completely closed off to the idea of expansion. When Super Rugby team the Western Force were axed from the competition at the end of last year, the NRL refused to put plans in place for a Perth based club.
It would seem they are content with their presence in the eastern states and would rather let the AFL have the free reign in the west.
The Super League isn’t afraid of expansion and experimentation, though. And why would they be when the competition can only grow from where it currently stands behind the more popular and successful English sports that are shielding it from the limelight.
If those plans for expansion involve Australia, particularly the regions currently uninhabited by Rugby League, then the NRL should watch its back.
This weekend appears as much an experiment as it does a test drive. If the Super League can’t escape from the shadow of England’s sporting colossus’, and grow the game to the point where clubs can afford to offer higher profile players big money, increase the salary cap, or implement a proper reserves league, it will have no choice but to look to one of the few places it is assured to make waves.
If that means invading Australia – Rugby League’s stronghold – and taking on the might of the NRL while it sleeps, then so be it. What is there to lose? Money? Perhaps, but when a competition is as cash-strapped as the Super League and some of its clubs are said to be, it might as well go looking for ways to buck the trend – and taking the odd game to Australia or implanting a team seems as viable an option as any other to increase revenue to the levels seen in the NRL.
If clubs can travel to Toronto, why not Perth, or Adelaide? The NRL doesn’t start till mid-March so there is a small window where the Super League – now broadcast weekly on Fox League – will have the full attention of Rugby League fans in Australia. More overseas fixtures would also boost the price of television rights and prompt further competition between local and international broadcasters.
This weekend’s Super League fixture might appear a harmless exhibition game aimed at helping fund a comparatively weak competition by the NRL’s standards, but it could secretly be a bid for expansion, a brief glimpse at how the English game can profit from bringing more fixtures to Australia in future.