Landmark moment for British game a glimpse into the future

The NRL might not be too concerned by Super League’s venture to its stomping ground this weekend, nor the fans worried about the potential ramifications of this historic visit. But there is more than meets the eye about Hull FC’s clash with Wigan at Wollongong on Saturday evening.

At first glance this game seems nothing more than a gimmick, a chance to keep the struggling English game from treading water. And what better way to do this than to take it to the only place in the world where Rugby League has a large presence in the media and isn’t hidden behind the exploits of Manchester City, or continually confused with its sister code?

When Australian fans settle in to watch what will be, in effect, a bit of pre-season entertainment viewed in lieu of any local action, they will surely wonder why the NRL haven’t yet played a game in the UK for competition points.

The simple answer is this: the NRL wouldn’t gain the same amount of exposure, nor attract the same attention from potential commercial investors, as the Super League will by bringing a game down under.

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 9.48.08 am.png

This might just be the smartest move the RFL have ever made and it comes on the back of their expansion into Canada with the Toronto Wolfpack, who have progressed to the second tier of the Championship and already have their sights set on a Super League birth in the years to come.

The NRL, meanwhile, appear completely closed off to the idea of expansion. When Super Rugby team the Western Force were axed from the competition at the end of last year, the NRL refused to put plans in place for a Perth based club.

It would seem they are content with their presence in the eastern states and would rather let the AFL have free reign in the west.

The Super League isn’t afraid of expansion and experimentation, though. And why would they be when the competition can only grow from where it currently stands behind the more popular and successful English sports that are shielding it from the limelight.

If those plans for expansion involve Australia, particularly the regions currently uninhabited by Rugby League, then the NRL should watch its back.

This weekend appears as much an experiment as it does a test drive. If the Super League can’t escape from the shadow of England’s sporting colossuses, and grow the game to the point where clubs can afford to offer higher profile players big money, increase the salary cap, or implement a proper reserves league, it will have no choice but to look to one of the only places it is assured to make waves.

If that means invading Australia – Rugby League’s stronghold – and taking on the might of the NRL while it sleeps, then so be it. What is there to lose? Money? Perhaps, but when a competition is as cash-strapped as the Super League and some of its clubs are said to be, it might as well go looking for ways to buck the trend – and taking the odd game to Australia or implanting a team seems as viable an option as any other to increase revenue to the levels seen in the NRL.

If clubs can travel to Toronto, why not Perth, or Adelaide? The NRL doesn’t start till mid March so there is a small window where the Super League – now broadcast weekly on Fox League – will have the full attention of Rugby League fans in Australia. More overseas fixtures would also boost the price of television rights and prompt further competition between local and international broadcasters.

This weekend’s Super League fixture might appear a harmless exhibition game aimed at helping fund a comparatively weak competition by the NRL’s standards, but it could secretly be a bid for expansion, a brief glimpse at how the English game can profit from bringing more fixtures to Australia in future.

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

Cameron-Smith-Australia-Kangaroos-Rugby-League-Four-Nations-2016

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.

 

Mutual agreement of terms a must to save World Club Challenge from impending death

If there was ever a sign that the NRL no longer have any interest in sending its teams to the UK for the World Club Challenge, this is it. The revamped tournament which began two years ago, featuring three teams from each league in a ‘series’ style format, has been cut to just two this weekend and if recent trends are any indication, in just two years the traditional fixture may cease to exist.

The World Club Challenge has been through numerous iterations since its inception as an exhibition match between Eastern Suburbs and St. Helens back in 1976, damaging the tournament’s reputation as a traditional rivalry worthy of both the fans attention and the respective boards’ resources. The regular reshuffling of the tournament’s structure, as well as the questionable qualifying methods and sporadic scheduling have been just as, if not more damaging, to the competitions relevance and integrity than anything else.

The differences between what the RFL and NRL governing bodies wish to get out of the World Club Challenge are world’s apart and this is at the core of their very one sided tussle for keeping the ageing concept alive.

brisbane-action-shot-2015-wcs-w2000h1160
The Broncos take on Wigan in the 2015 World Club Series – Photo: Wigan Warriors

The Super League bosses are visionary’s who wish to turn the competition into something it isn’t and never will be; their over-inflated sense of the tournament’s self worth is damaging when they come to asses its popularity, but are driven by optimism when they consider what the ‘Big Brother’ can do for Rugby League in the UK. So much so that plans are already being put in place to shift a regular season Super League fixture to Australia to broaden its reach, while negotiations around the NRL moving a game off-shore and into its rival market are also reportedly underway. What benefits this has for the NRL outside of boosted TV ratings on UK cable television, it is difficult to tell.

The NRL, on the other hand, are the churlish, cashed up stepsisters who get what they want, when they want, and aren’t bothered by a total boycotting of the World Club Challenge because they lose nothing in doing so and have already cracked open parts of the Australian market, and as such, can foresee no great financial or profile raising benefits. It’s simply a clogging up of an already cluttered pre-season schedule that is running the risk of injuring one of its major draw-cards. The Nines are a far easier way for the NRL to grow its image and expand its geographical reach, that is, if these are indeed their goals for participation in the World Club Challenge/ Series. It doesn’t require conversations with its English counterparts and can therefore run its own show, hassle free. The single weekend is another rather attractive quality for a board that has bigger fish to fry than organising a pre-season kick-about – even if its worth more than the sum of its parts now that it is established and ready for expansion.

At the moment, they are a couple of sparring partners fighting for two very different causes. The Super League – to grow their brand by reaching out to Rugby League heartlands in the shadow of the EPL, which will, in turn, lead to boosted revenue and an increased playing standard as international talent is lured to the country. The NRL – to give their clubs exposure to an international market. But they are the power brokers in the great chain of Rugby League being and can do as they please. As such, they may prefer to stage a game featuring two Australian sides in the UK from which similar outcomes to those gained though the World Club Challenge will be derived, less the time consuming negotiations and revenue sharing with the RFL.

These are far from the only reasons the World Club Challenge is beginning to dig its own grave, however. When one competition has refused for years to send out its best players and make a decent hash of the innovation, and in doing so, fails to reward the paying public for their interest by treating it like a glorified trial, they single-handedly erode both the fans and sponsors faith in the concept, while also removing the semblance of integrity that has managed to hang around after a long history of mismanagement and miscommunication between governing bodies that stems right back to the rather spontaneous clash in 1976, which occurred just before the concept went into hiding for eleven years. In this regard, the NRL and its representative clubs have stepped up their game in recent times, suggesting that perhaps they might wish to give this competition the attention and recognition it deserves after 41 long and ill-fated years.

Many would be surprised to know that the Super League are the leading title holders of the World Club challenge by 12 to 11; if you can excuse the 22-team tournament played in 1997. But when you scan through the results to relive some of the great Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors victories, you are immediately reminded that the Australian teams were far from full strength outfits. Not necessarily through the mid 2000’s – the Brisbane Broncos took the field with a similar side to their premiership winning team of the previous year in their clash with St. Helens in 2007, as did Manly following their premiership triumph  – but most certainly since the formation of the new ‘Series’ format in 2015, even if the results have reflected poorly on the Super League. And yet, there are still claims that the gulf in standards between the NRL and Super League are responsible for the competitions flagging interest. How is that when, historically speaking, the Super League holds a slight advantage in the World Club Challenge stakes.

463970656
The tussle for power continues – Photo: Getty Images

When NRL clubs have found themselves on the wrong end of a result, they generally blame jet-lag, the climate or the out-of-season fixtures. When they win, the opposition is not up to standard. It’s a merry-go-round of conflicting rhetoric more violent than the frequent changes that have accompanied the competition’s many different incarnations. There’s a stigma associated with the World Club Challenge/ Series and, as hard as it tries to shake it off through innovation and reinvention, it continues to hang around like a bad smell. But without a mutual understanding from all parties involved as to the importance of this competition in growing Rugby League at grassroots level and in general across the UK, the World Club Challenge will never become more than the eh ‘pre/ early -season filler’ it currently is. And that mutual understanding will never be achieved when one organisation reaps little to no benefits whatsoever from the concept in its current form. Compromises, made by the Super League, are therefore a necessity going forward if it hopes to ensure the competitions longevity. It must appease the golden goose in the interim in order for it to take a golden egg. And this will entail World Club Challenge games becoming more accessible and time friendly for the NRL’s biggest asset – fans across Australia.

Three years ago the Sydney Roosters played host to the Wigan Warriors in front of 37,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was the first time the competition appeared to gain traction and the first time the fans bought into the contrived rivalry that has now become a tradition. If the two organisations wish to see this competition flourish into the successful, revenue and profile raising product it has always promised to become, but never amounted to, it must travel from country to country, stick to a specified structure and feature only the past years grand finalists in a one off game. Adding extra sides does nothing but detract from the Super League season already in play and undermine the importance of the fixtures that lie either side of it.

It’s a sound enough concept with solid foundations that has worked in other sports and, if treated correctly, can become a prestigious event that the grand finalists use as extra incentive in their quest for a premiership.