The National Rugby League is clearly not a fan of the international game. It effectively boycotted the scheduled 2021 Rugby League World Cup, forcing the tournament to be delayed until later this year.
Its argument regarding COVID concerns did have some merit. Australia happened to go through its Omicron wave of the virus at the same time as the tournament was initially scheduled.
But rather than actually state its key concerns around COVID spread in the United Kingdom, its main argument was that it could impact NRL trials.
The game didn’t widely consult with the players, and had they done so, they’d have found a lot of widespread support for the tournament going ahead.
The NRL isn’t the only club competition in the world to be against international games.
English Premier League clubs are often averse to their players going on international duty.
But they have more of a leg to stand on, given players most often represent their nations during mid-season breaks, sometimes playing pointless friendlies and picking up injuries that impact their club sides mid-competition.
You’ll hardly hear EPL clubs talking down the World Cup.
The EPL also has the luxury of being the most-watched sporting competition in the world. It doesn’t really need the international game to justify its broadcast deals around the world.
Its massive player pool means 113 of the 207 registered FIFA nations have been represented in the competition. It’s effectively an international competition in its own right.
The NRL though, is an insular, little competition that exists only on the east coast of Australia and is only on prime time television in two states.
It doesn’t have the benefit of players coming from more than 100 nations. In fact, most NRL players come from New South Wales and Queensland. In total, players from only 13 nations have played in the NRL.
And I’m not talking about players of heritage, I’m talking about players born in another country.
The game has never really expanded since its inception. There’s a certain irony to calling the Dolphins an expansion team when they are very much setting up in rugby league heartland.
The same can be said about the Gold Coast Titans. After all, they were the game’s second crack at the Gold Coast, third if you count South Queensland.
The only long term expansions you can really say the game has undertaken have been Melbourne, North Queensland and the Warriors.
Areas far removed from the game’s strongholds that were a bid to grow the game.
And in the cases of the Storm and Warriors, move the game into an area where another code was the dominant force.
The same is true for the game in England. Save for two clubs from the south of France, the English Super League is full of exclusively northern clubs. Its North American side, the Toronto Wolfpack? Booted at the first sign of trouble and replaced with a team from, you guessed it, the north of England.
The NRL though, despite its opposition to actual expansion, seems to be continuously talking about it.
Take John Ribot’s “vision” during the Super League War in the mid-90s for example. A proper world club challenge, combined with games being broadcast in Asia.
Well, the world club challenge ended up running on the smell of an oily rag and the game never eventuated in Asia.
In 2020, you had head office talking about how when the game was set to resume after the COVID-enforced shut down there would be 100 million eyeballs on the opening game of the season.
Well, the 100 million eyeballs never eventuated.
But, had the NRL actually been interested in and invested in the international game, they could very well have had a much bigger audience. Not 100 million, but more than what they ended up getting.
So, the NRL is interested in expansion. So long as it doesn’t actually have to do anything, like have the Kangaroos play more than once every two years.
And this should also be a timely reminder that those Kangaroos haven’t played a match since their 2019 defeat at the hands of Tonga.
The NRL will tell you it’s due to COVID, but the Wallabies managed to play in Europe, the Australian cricket team a T/20 world cup and is now in Pakistan, the English rugby league team played in France.
Yet the NRL was publishing “merit” teams during the 2021 season, which was completely pointless given not one of those players would pull on the green and gold that year.
And some may even be opting to play for their country of heritage in the World Cup this year.
I will now get to the crux of this piece and that is, for the NRL to become as large as it wants to, it needs to commit to the international game, both in a development sense and regular playing sense.
The NRL can have a much bigger impact in the Pacific.
It has recently begun to organise development teams in Fiji, while the PNG Hunters are in the Queensland Cup and the Fiji Silktails will join the NSW Cup next year.
But it’s not second tier club competitions that drive interest throughout a country. It’s their national side performing, alongside their countrymen playing in the top competition.
Fiji has not played an international match since 2019, the same as Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.
COVID was used as an excuse, yet in 2021, Samoa had 85 eligible players in the NRL, there were a reported 20 Fijian players in the NRL. This year, there are a reported 54 players eligible for Tonga in the NRL.
There are no international matches so far scheduled for 2022.
The NRL could have organised for a Pacific cup to be played between Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and PNG.
But the NRL just seems happy to keep its small, provincial competition rumbling along for another season, before begrudgingly seeing players head to the World Cup at the end of the year.
If the NRL actually wishes to get those international eyeballs it wants, then it needs to promote international matches and have the Kangaroos playing regularly.
Right now, the Kangaroos are less than an afterthought. The NRL builds up State of Origin as its most important games.
No other sport, with an international footprint, puts a state or regional match above its national side.
And the problem with that, is it remains exclusionary. You’re not going to see NSW or QLD playing against France.
You can’t continue to use Origin to spread the game when it is truly irrelevant outside those two states.
You can use it as a brief advertisement, as a way to pique somebody’s interest. But it’s not going to see the rugby league footprint actually spread.
Come the world cup this year, have a look at what it means for those smaller nations when they play against Australia. Or look at the reaction Tonga had when they beat the Kangaroos.
To almost every nation outside the big three, international rugby league matters.
There should be a form of Six Nations in the southern hemisphere every year that will see those Pacific teams play more often and against the likes of Australia and New Zealand.
There need to be Kangaroos tours to Europe where they play more than just a handful of games against England.
If it doesn’t actually get out there and play games, it will continue to remain this little provincial outpost of a code that talks about expansion but hardly moves beyond its heartland.
Maybe I’m idealistic here. Maybe the 100+ years of tiny provincial competition is enough evidence that rugby league doesn’t actually want to be a world sport.
If that were the case, the NRL would be better off saying that, than talking up a random international thought bubble every few years that will never actually eventuate.
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