Field of Dreams: World Cup offers big opportunities for minnow nations

If you’ve blinked at some point over the last few weeks, you might have missed the news that the Rugby League World Cup begins later this week. That’s right, Australia take on England in Melbourne on Friday night to kick off their title defence, but does the Australian public care?

The seasons have changed, the days are getting longer, and the Grand Final has come and gone. This can mean only one thing – rugby league season is done and dusted for the year. Until 2018 arrives, any and all talk about football will be put on the back burner and attention will turn to our summer obsessions: cricket, soccer, the beach and our backyard barbie.

It is no secret that international rugby league has been struggling for some time; its reputation has been damaged by the ‘defectors’ who have made a mockery of what international sport should be about – pride and passion in the jumper, its history, and all it represents.

Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, even the likes of James Graham and little-known players like USA captain Mark Offerdahl, know what it means to represent their country; they cherish the moment at every opportunity and place it up there with the Origin victories and Grand Final triumphs of bygone eras.

 

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The USA playing Australia at the last world cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

Could you imagine Steve Smith suddenly deciding he’s had enough of the Baggy Green and would rather play across the ditch? What about if Roger Federer, one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era, chose to jump ship and join up with arch-rival Raffa and the Spaniards. What would world tennis look like? How would the pundits react?

The falling out from any of the above scenarios would be far greater than what we have experienced in rugby league land over the last few months. The reasons for this are simple: international rugby league and the World Cup has long been the dog’s chew toy; the ultimate bartering tool for the respective boards; and a tournament that became a laughing stock so long ago we’ve barely questioned how farcical it has become today.

So when Andrew Fifita dropped the green and gold of Australia for the red and white of Tonga, we rejoiced through lack of caring when we should have been waving our fists in anger at the leniency of the rules that have sent the international game careering towards an early grave.

Then again, rugby league has always been about the battler that isn’t given a chance but somehow prevails against all odds. A working-class game deserves the kind of story that inspires the next generation and empowers an entire nation that rides the highs and lows of their team. Players like Fifita and Taumalolo can provide this for the minnows.

 

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Jason Taumalolo will play for Tonga during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

When the PNG Hunters players shed a few tears after lifting the Queensland Cup in September, Australian rugby league fans suddenly grew an appreciation for the international game.

It has been bashed up and thrown to the dogs so many times over the last decade that we’ve forgotten why we still bother to give it the time of day. Australia may dominate every tournament and, in doing so, chip away at the relevance and popularity of the World Cup, but little-known rugby league stalwarts like Mark Offerdahl of the USA are just pleased to put their nation on the rugby league map.

There are plenty of other sporting contests capable of stealing our attention here in Australia during the summer months, not least the Ashes, so the Rugby League World Cup may perish from our memories quicker than it arrived. But for nations like PNG, who have hostage rights for the first time in the tournament’s history and have poured more than $1 million into refurbishing its facilities, it might as well be the FIFA Football World Cup.

Lebanon will play in their first World Cup in 17 years when they take on France at Canberra Stadium on Sunday. To put this into some context, the last game they played at a world tournament came during the year of the Sydney Olympics. On that occasion, they were knocked out during the group stage, and finding their way back into the international fold has been a long and treacherous one filled with many setbacks.

Brad Fittler has already told his players that unless they learn the national anthem, they won’t take the field. Perhaps this was a dig at the players who have been gifted a position in the side through their participation in the NRL; perhaps it was out of respect for the players who have juggled a full-time job and training at some point during their careers to earn a belated international berth.

 

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Lebanon will be coached by former NSW and Roosters great, Brad Fittler. Image source: APRLC

 

We here in Australia may take the rugby league World Cup for granted, but we should seldom discount what it means to the players who aren’t thrust into the limelight for months at a time and paid by the truckload.

Australia should take out this World Cup in a canter; their class and experience is unrivalled competition wide. However, the side that holds the trophy aloft in Brisbane on December 3 will be far from the cup’s only victor.

When PNG took out the Queensland Cup, someone quipped that the country be given a public holiday. If this is the kind of reaction a local competition can garner, just imagine what a World Cup can do for the spirits of the nation and the growth of rugby league. One day, PNG might well be taking on the might of England or Australia in a World Cup final. If this is ever to happen, we must find a way to boost interest in this World Cup and any future editions. That is our duty as a host nation and one of rugby league’s forefathers.

Rugby League must escape ‘dark-ages’ mindset and endorse the international game

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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 Campletown 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.