“The Rugby League World Cup is pointless! Why don’t we just put Australia, England and New Zealand straight into the semi-finals and then pick one of the islander countries to join them? The rest of the tournament is a waste of everyone’s time”
Ask 100 fans watching the 2017 Rugby League World Cup who is going to win the tournament and 9 times out of 10 they will say Australia. Does this take the excitement out of the next few weeks down under? Or would you find a similar response in favour of New Zealand if it were the rugby union world cup?
Following on from the change in international rules players are now permitted to represent Tier 2 countries without sacrificing their Tier 1 eligibility. Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo’s decisions to wear the red of Tonga (as opposed to Australia and New Zealand) acted as a catalyst for a rugby league enthusiast’s excitement and anticipation, but has this worn off as the same teams continue to drub their inferior opposition? Why is the rugby union world cup not suffering the same overarching sense of inevitability?
Truth be told, international rugby league is lightyears behind its rugby union counterpart and despite the RLIF’s (Rugby League International Federation) best intentions there is still a lot to be done in order to bridge that gap. Changes in eligibility rules are a welcome sight, but there is a far more simple method available – play more international rugby.
Whilst Tier 1 nations have players plying their trade at the highest level of club rugby, Tier 2 countries would benefit greatly from more frequent international meet ups. Yesterday’s 52-6 Australian victory over France offers little credit to the French team’s performance, they were gallant, bullish, and at times, a good match for their superior foe. But it was their lack of general unity and clinical play that was transparently apparent as the Kangaroos racked up the points.
Whilst one could argue that a lot of the Frenchman do play together regularly for Catalans, that is no longer the case. As the sport continues to boom in France so does the calibre of player. Ten different clubs were represented in France’s line-up yesterday, including two from the French domestic league, so evidently the sport is expanding outside of the Catalans brand. However, these players have no experience of playing together.
Switch codes and you’ll see an abundance of international fixtures, from autumn internationals, the six nations, the rugby championship, summer tours and more. A union player has an wealth of international opportunity. In comparison, before this tournament France had played 3 games in the space of 2 years. How can a team expect to grow and perform with such little opportunity?
This issue only further serves to display the main problem with international rugby league – it is not the pinnacle of the sport. Playing second fiddle to club RL, international rugby league holds around 10% of the interest it should. Whilst the Australian media have gotten behind the tournament with constant TV coverage, a fan turning up to the stadium is far from a certainty. Couple this with the appalling television coverage here in the UK, and it is very easy to see why the international form of the game does little to inspire.
Contrastingly, the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup was inescapable on British television during the tournament (yes, the tournament was in England but previous world cups have been comprehensively televised as well), a glowing portrayal of the sport’s global presence and appeal. The 2017 Rugby League World Cup? Premier sports for £20 a month or just England games on free to air TV.
It is easy to argue that there’s not enough national interest in the sport for the tournament to be televised extensively, however this is a prime opportunity to grow the nation’s interest in the sport. How can someone be interested in something they are not able to find? Why would a rugby league virgin pay £20 to ‘give the sport a go’?
This lack of BBC willingness directly coincides with the sport’s national governing body and its failure to expand the appeal of the game. The likes of London Broncos, Celtic Crusaders and Gloucester All Golds have failed respectively in their plight to bring the sport to rugby union hotbeds, and now the RFL (Rugby Football League) are instead attempting to expand the British game by integrating non-British sides. Catalans, Toulouse and the Toronto Wolfpack have somehow found themselves in the British league system, with a New York rugby league side to come. Is the sport so area-based that it cannot succeed at all outside of North England? Should we really be giving up on British expansion in favour of French and North American?
Conversely, other European countries are successfully expanding the game, albeit quite far behind the state of the British game. Countries such as Serbia, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey and Italy continue to add club sides as well as playing more and more international fixtures. Similarly, Lebanon has created a club system that has hugely benefitted their national side.
The latter are a shining example of rugby league expansion done right. In the 2000 World Cup Lebanon was a bunch of well-travelled, veteran Aussies who had never stepped foot in their supposed country. Fast-forward to 2017 and the Lebanon side have a World Cup victory and a home-grown player in their squad. Yes, one sole home-grown player seems paltry and trivial but add in the 3 other players travelling with the squad and it’s clear Lebanese rugby league is flourishing.
In Lebanon, rugby league has become a game for all, with Muslims and Christians in the same teams - unlike other sports in the country - and all different political backgrounds are represented.
From having no rugby league whatsoever in Lebanon in 2000, there is now a blossoming community within the country. The main, core league features five championship clubs, whilst the sport is also played in double figures when it comes to universities and schools. Around 1,000 players are registered as playing with the Lebanon Federation, with numerous junior teams as well.
Furthermore, this year a Lebanese women's side played an international game against Italy and a women's league is planned for next year.
But surely this doesn’t matter because the national side will always just be Australians, right?
Founder of the sport in Lebanon, Danny Kazandjian, says that this will not always be the case:
"Migration rates from Lebanon to Australia are not what they were post-war.
So the number of players available using the grandparent and parent rule isn't going to be the same in 10 or 15 years as it is now.
"It is essential for countries like Lebanon to ensure there is a clear, robust cultural link between the country and the national team.
"Lebanon fields national teams at under-21s, under-18s and under-16s - last year the U21s and U18s toured Serbia - so the pathways are there now."
This model for expansion has taken a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it is unmistakeably effective. Hungary have since implemented a similar system in which they have a national side in Australia, with plans to bring the home side and Oz sides together in the next year ahead of the 2018 Emerging Nations World Cup. It is becoming increasingly apparent that utilising Australian immigration can aid the expansion of the sport.
The aforementioned 2018 tournament takes place in Sydney and sees the likes of Canada, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Niue, Philippines, Thailand and Vanuatu coming to patriotic blows, offering a chance to observe the growth of international rugby league beneath the World Cup.
In fact, the RLIF would be well placed to watch this tournament and use it to benefit the top international countries rather than risk further ‘blowout’ World Cups.
Additionally, the organisation should keep an eye on the Papua New Guinean team and crowd – rugby league is Papua New Guinea’s national sport – if they wish to see the excitement our sport can create, because if they can replicate even an ounce of that excitement, the sport would be more enthralling and enticing as a whole.
So, enjoy the rest of the World Cup as it comes this autumn and appreciate the effort the players are putting into representing their respective countries. But in the back of your mind, spare an optimistic thought for 2025 and what the tournament could look like if the RLIF pull their finger out.