Rugby League World Cup: How Australian power brokers can unlock international game

As Samoa’s Stephen Crichton lined up his history-making drop-goal in last Saturday’s World Cup semi-final, 2.4m people held their breath while watching it unfold on BBC One.

It’s the biggest TV audience that rugby league has had in this country since Shaun Johnson was side-stepping New Zealand to victory in the last seconds of the 2013 World Cup semi-final at Wembley.

For the record, 2.6m were watching at that moment nine years ago.

We can only wonder how many more would have tuned in for an England final against Australia – this week, or back then.

Don’t think about it for too long. The missed opportunities make for torturous contemplation.

There are still some very decent audiences to be delivered, not least by England’s wheelchair team when they take on France on what will be a breathtaking Friday night in Manchester.

On Saturday, the women of Australia and New Zealand, and the men of Australia and Samoa, will attract a sizeable number of appreciative viewers on the BBC.

But the evidence of the past few weeks is that an England men’s rugby league team is the vehicle to drive the sport into the sharp focus of a mass audience that normally ignores the 13-a-side code.

So how does the game react in order to take advantage of England’s profile and appeal?

Well it does what rugby league always does best; it gets itself mired in mutual introspection and messy negotiations and offers little to make us optimistic.

At the moment, aside from a mid-season game against France next April at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium, England have no confirmed fixtures for next year or the year after that.

There’s a hope, a dream, an aspiration that they may face a southern hemisphere team up here in both of the next two years. But that’s a long way from being confirmed.

And be clear about this, that state of affairs would be the same even if England had won the World Cup.

Imagine that in any other sport. Imagine any national team coming off the back of winning a World Cup and at that moment having no set plans to play more than one game in the following two years.

Also imagine any other sport ignoring one of its greatest rivalries.

England or Great Britain v Australia in rugby league is rich with a tradition that has its roots in the Kangaroos’ very first visit to these shores in 1908.

Yet the last time England played Australia was in the 2017 World Cup final. And there are currently no plans in place to play them again.

It will be at least six years between fixtures between the two, and it may be longer.

That’s the longest gap between match-ups in continued peacetime since the rivalry began.

Modern-day administrators, hang your heads in shame.

Undoubtedly those administrators will point to Covid, and remind us there should have been an Ashes tour here two years ago.

But cricket and rugby union have all been living in the same Covid-hit world, and they have managed to keep those big rivalries rolling on.

The knee-jerk reaction from British fans is to blame the RFL. Or maybe go above their heads and criticise the IRL, which oversees the international game.

But the truth is that both those bodies are toothless when it comes to dictating what happens in the international arena.

The power brokers are in Australia. Their domestic competition, the National Rugby League, provides the vast majority of players to most of the world’s leading international teams.

What happens in Australia’s backyard dictates the global success and appeal of rugby league. It’s on their whim whether the global game grows or fails.

At the moment there is a difficult negotiation going on between the RLPA, the players’ union in Australia, and the Australian Rugby League Commission, the governing body, as to the number of games and what workload players should be subjected to, the number of matches they can expected to play in and the amount of recovery time they are given between seasons.

To illustrate the difference in player power down under compared with that in the northern hemisphere, the bulk of the side that won the NRL Grand Final with Penrith, and who’ve since gone on to play in this World Cup, will probably not be allowed to play in February’s World Club Challenge match against St Helens.

They’ll be ordered to rest, whereas St Helens’ England players – Tommy Makinson, Jack Welsby and Morgan Knowles – will in all likelihood be in the party of visiting players who fly around the world for that match.

It’s admirable that the players in Australia are well looked after. But that shouldn’t preclude a proper international calendar, because if the sport wants to grow globally, it’s the international game that will make that happen.

And player after player – including New Zealand’s Golden Boot winner Joey Manu – will tell you that pulling on an international jersey is their biggest thrill.

There’s also a question of how willing some NRL clubs are to support the potential of international growth if it’s at a perceived cost to their own parochial ambitions.

Until the ARLC and RLPA have reached an agreement, and until a domestic civil war that’s rumbling on down under between the clubs and the central administrators is avoided, then international rugby league hangs in the balance.

Troy Grant, the chairman of the IRL, says he hopes it will be this December when a blueprint for the next two years of the international calendar can be confirmed.

But back in the summer, he did promise the fixtures would be out before the end of this World Cup. And before that he was hoping to make an announcement by last June. So don’t hold your breath.

One thing that we do know is that if there is to be a southern hemisphere side coming north next year, it won’t be New Zealand.

They’ve been starved of rugby league, both domestic and international, through the pandemic, so the Kiwis will be staging some potentially money-spinning games on home soil in 2023. And good luck to them.

But England and France need the same succour and profile that only international rugby league can deliver. England have a newly-engaged audience that they need to grow and France need to start building momentum for their World Cup in 2025.

The 2.4m viewers last Saturday, and potentially many more, don’t care about internal domestic squabbles 12,000 miles away. But those involved in those squabbles should be mindful of how they have the power to unlock rugby league’s international potential.

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