RLWC scheduling disaster – where it has all gone wrong

If you build it, they will come. This might well be the case inside Papua New Guinea’s recently refurbished National Football Stadium, which has been bursting at the seams for the two group games played there so far, but it couldn’t be further from the truth here in Australia.

Low crowds and empty grandstands are a common theme in NRL land, where attendances have been in free fall for the past 5 years, but it seems to have crept into Rugby League’s showpiece event.

Here in Australia, we saw it coming from a mile away. If crowds aren’t turning up to see two highly supported local rivals go toe-to-toe at ANZ Stadium or Allianz on a balmy Sunday afternoon in prime time, why would they show up to watch Lebanon play England, or Italy play the U.S.A?

Ticket sales are of course indicative of the tournament’s advertising methods, which have been flimsy to say the least, while ticket prices aren’t exactly tempting punters to part with their hard earned.

But to blame poor attendance rates on the tournament’s questionable promotion alone is to miss the bigger picture.

Only four games have been played at one of Australia’s big rectangular ‘stadiums’ so far, while Western Sydney has been neglected altogether.

Two of those fixtures included Australia, and even then the stadiums still appeared to be only half full.

If the host nation can’t draw a crowd, how can you expect anyone to be interested in attending a game in the sweltering Townsville heat on a Saturday evening at 9:00pm?

Australia’s premier Rugby League venue, Suncorp Stadium, will be used for just two games in this edition of the World Cup. It will host a semi-final on the 24th of November and the big dance a week later.

This seems like a missed opportunity on multiple fronts; foremost that Queensland, one of Australia’s League heartlands, is effectively starved of live action until the tournament has just three games left to run.

During a different month, in a different city, this might not pose an issue. But while the semi-final is being played out between two of the competition heavyweights, the second day of the first Ashes test will have concluded just a few kilometers down the road at the Gabba.

The logic behind taking games to rural hubs like Cairns and Rugby League mad cities like Townsville makes sense, but when they feature noncompetitive games between minnow nations where the scorelines blow out after a few sets of six, you can hardly expect them to pique the interest of locals.

Why is it that the major venues – AAMI Park, Suncorp, GIO and the SFS – receive all the games involving Australia at some point across the tournament? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pack Barlow Park to the rafters on a Friday evening while the minnow nations battle it out on Saturday at the major venues to whet the appetite of the fans in places like Queensland and Perth, where the tournament has no presence until the final few weeks?

By starving fans living in and around the big stadiums in Melbourne, Brisbane and Western Sydney, the RLWC organisers are cutting off their noses despite their face.

Crowds are going to be naturally low for games involving minnow nations, and it is hard to find an excuse for the poor crowd that saw England play Lebanon at the SFS on Saturday night other than to say that this has long been the case in the NRL as well. But by moving some games that matter to the heartlands, and the remainder to the major stadiums, fans in all regions are being exposed to the action.

The state of Rugby League outside the nations with a national competition, or a presence in those individual leagues, has seen the gulf in standard increase dramatically, as evidenced by Fiji’s 66 point demolition of Wales.

Finding a way to pack out any stadiums under these circumstances is going to take some progressive thinking, so why not move them to the big cities where developing some interest in the tournament is better than letting it fly under the radar?

England did a fine job of making games between the minnows appealing four years ago; Australia must do the same.

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.