The problem for international Rugby League is simple. Unlike many other sports around world, the national competitions, that is the games played between club sides in leagues like the NRL and Super League, are far bigger in scale than any of the yearly international tournaments (of which there are few) and one-off games played across a single weekend of festivities.
The NRL and RFL will tell you the international game is not broken, and hence doesn’t require fixing: a way of ensuring revenue remains unshared. But they are the custodians of the game on a worldwide scale. The ones responsible for ensuring that the health and well-being of proud League nations like PNG, Samoa and Tonga don’t suddenly suffer from tanking interest. Australia, New Zealand and England, though, will rarely play against the ‘minnow’ nations (and I use this term loosely) outside of a World Cup. So when England take the field on Saturday night at Campbelltown Stadium, they are breaking down a wall of Rugby League supremacy that has stood unmoved since the Super League war.
The demise of international Rugby League lies squarely on the shoulders of the NRL and Super League administrators, who both hold more power than the game’s specialist international governing body, and as such, decide when and where international tournaments are played. Forget about a universal voice, this is Rugby League oppression at its finest. The major players in Australia, NZ and England are the bearers of power and financial superiority, and so the wheels cannot be set in motion by the other associates, let alone the RLIF, until they have signed off on it, because without them, a tournament like the world cup would cease to exist. The governing bodies are well aware of this, and so exercising their dominance by putting on an international Rugby League showcase once a year becomes their best option for giving it a brief and necessary taste of the limelight, without going overboard.
Rugby League is not the only game that appears to be shrinking rather than expanding, however. Cricket, for example, has long been ruled by three superpowers of the international game – Australia, India and England – who have placed their own self interests before the well-being of the sport at large in regions struggling to keep their head above water. Unlike cricket though, international Rugby League seems to be losing (if it hasn’t already lost) its aura among fans in the hot spots, who see the rep round as an unnecessary detour in a long and, at times, misdirected season. This has come about through an over-saturation of club football and an under-appreciation for the importance of Rugby League played at international level.
Like I said in the opening remarks of this column, Rugby League is one of the few sports across the world that has a larger presence at national level than it does at a representative one; primarily in the areas which have national competitions. The AFL, of course, is one exception, because it too seems content with the following it has gained in Victoria and does not feel the need to break free of its own little bubble. But they have both missed the bus. Cricket, Soccer, Union, Hockey, and a large majority of every non-American-centric sport has realised that their respective national competitions are but a drop in the pond. Each conduct international tournaments in their own way, using their own structures (some of which are a little too exclusive), and others do not give the sport the coverage it deserves in nations that mightn’t have the same opportunities as far as funding and infrastructure are concerned. But they are making an effort to ensure the international game remains the highest level any player can aspire to represent. Rugby League must follow this blueprint.
This means establishing routine tournaments at the conclusion of the world’s major leagues, even if this solution still prioritises club football. The benefit here is that both the NRL and Super League conclude at almost the same time, opening the door for an international schedule to be put into effect around the late October/ November period. This would of course take a huge commitment from the respective governing bodies, who must at some stage ensure their players are given a rest in between seasons. They must also be satisfied that the games would rate well on television and receive adequate fan attendance figures, otherwise the concept could quickly go down the drain. Most importantly, though, some fixtures should be taken to areas such as Port Moresby in PNG or – now that the the City/ Country concept is coming to an end – to Mudgee, Lismore or Wagga Wagga where the bush Rugby League community can be re-engaged.
The Northern Hemisphere mustn’t be neglected either. England is the birthplace of Rugby League and interest in the Four Nations tournament last year shows that it is a country falling in love with the game all over again. The Catalans Dragons involvement in the Super League cannot be overlooked. They have gained a substantial backing since their debut season in 2006 and their charming venue in Perpignan, which creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere under the setting sun, is readymade, if ever so slightly small, for international hostage rights.
The final step, and this goes without saying, is ensuring more than 20 international teams, from Fiji, right down to the lowly ranked Cook Islands and a few of the affiliates, are in some way included. If this means setting up a division system, than so be it. It could hurt teams ranked 10 and below in the current RLIF rankings, who are next to no chance of defeating sides with a greater player pool and financial stability, but at least they would be given an incentive to boost participation rates and seek financial backing from their local governments, who will not act without reassurance that this sport will bring them some kind of economic return.
The intrigue of a promotion and relegation system cannot be denied either. It works so well in the Super League, giving sides in the championship hope of returning or debuting in the top league and obtaining the perks that go along with it, so why shouldn’t it at least be trialed at international level. It would, at the very least, see international Rugby League take on board greater context, while the competition between teams ranked between 5-10, and those hoping to crack the top division – which will bring with it an instant raise in match payments – would immediately lead to a more exciting spectacle.
The remaining issue with all of the above changes is still whether the powerhouses are willing to take a leap of faith and a financial hit, or whether they will continue to assert their dominance over the RLIF and uphold what seems to be a suppression of the international game. These are exciting yet confusing times for a sport still emotionally invested in club football.
The green and gold of Australia, black and white of New Zealand, and everything that goes along with it should be the greatest privilege a player receives and a prize they cherish no matter how long their representative career may last. But still there is an underlying presumption that the international game is far less important; on its last legs and struggling for meaning (even if this view is rarely, if ever, adopted by the players of our great sport). And until this ideology changes on behalf of the boards, international Rugby League will struggle to break the shackles that are holding it back.
Regions in PNG, Tonga and Fiji, to name but three, have contributed a great deal to the NRL over the years and deserve to reap the rewards of being a vital cog in the wheel of the world’s strongest club competition. Each week we marvel at the exploits of Suliasi Vunivalu, the speed and power of Marika Koroibete and, not long ago now, the spellbinding pace of Noa Nadruku. To showcase and commemorate their sheer talent, international rugby league must expand. Waiting is no longer an option.