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What To Do About International Rugby League?

14/11/2016 17:25

If you listened carefully on Sunday afternoon, you would have heard the collective thud of England rugby league fans banging their heads repeatedly against brick walls. To say it was the same old story does not do it justice. It has been the same old story for about forty years and counting.
To accuse England players of not caring is simply not fair. The issue, as it has been for as long as many can remember, is the small matter of Australia dominance of the sport.

What is often forgotten is that rugby league had a World Cup well before rugby union. Helped by a Puig Aubert inspired French side, the international game had a relatively good period in the fifties which was not capitalized upon. Rugby league supporters tend to point towards the discrimination the sport has faced in conjunction with administration failures that prevented the international game taking off the way other sports managed.

The greatest issue the intentional rugby league faces is Australia. They are simply light years better than anyone else. Acknowledging New Zealand's World Cup victory of 2008, it has to be stated that one of the major reasons behind that (and any other partial triumph) is that all the New Zealand players play in the Australian domestic competition. Over more recent years, we have seen English players play in the competition and they will tell you about the difference in quality and intensity.
The second issue is that the Australian's frankly do not need an international competition because they have the Holy Grail of State of Origin. Just less than 200,000 people were in attendance for the three State of Origin games in 2016 despite that last game being a dead rubber and recent Queensland domination. The allure of the blue or maroon jersey means just as much (an arguably more) to these players than the green and gold. State of Origin is regarded as the best rugby of either code in the world. Why would Australia need to put its players at risk of injury against teams who struggled to compete against them in a poorly attended tournament on the other side of the world?

One gets no pleasure for this doom and gloom. The 2013 World Cup was a relative success with the quality of play on show being the major talking point. Scotland's stunning draw with New Zealand on Friday night should also be celebrated, it is a pity that the Scottish media did not celebrate it rather more but that is a discussion for another day! So what can be done about it? Here is a thought.

Rugby league suffers from not being a true "national" sport with the exception of Papua New Guinea. It is a regional game, typified by the success of Origin so lets play regional, rather than national, rugby league so that the success of Origin can be replicated elsewhere. Whilst it is unlikely that the Australian's will be keen on it, entering a North of England team in State of Origin might be a way forward. The limitation of simply doing that is that it will not develop the game elsewhere. My previous blog extolled the virtues of Scotland switching codes to rugby league. I have to accept this is somewhat unlikely but an England versus Scotland Origin like series also represents a chance to improve both countries and might actually see a Great Britain versus Australia series re-born.

Splitting Australia up seems unfair given that it is hardly Australia's fault that it is much better than anyone else but may be the only way of ending Australia's total dominance. A regional World Cup featuring example sides such as New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Papua New Guinea, the North of England, Celtic nations, The Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, Pacific Islanders, North America, NZ North Island and NZ South Island could potentially give a more even playing field. There are those who tut at lumping groups like Pacific Islands together as it does not account for the diversity within that group but this is trying to create teams that have a chance of sporting success rather than an exercise in administration. Paradoxically, splitting Australia up might actually make them stronger but the hope will be that a more even playing field can be created.

One really wants to be positive about international rugby league but the crystal ball is saying Australia will simply keep winning and winning. Attendances in this four nations tournament have not been what the administrated would have liked, despite the quality of play on show. It is difficult for the public to get excited about competition when the result is almost (although not entirely) inevitable.

Lets leave on a positive; one of the reasons rugby league has this problem is that the cream of the sport always rises to the top. You cannot defend for 89 minutes, get a free kick, lump it into the box, get a ricochet and score the winner. Nor can you put the ball up your jumper for the entire game and win by kicking penalties from the half way line. There are not hiding places in rugby league, upsets are rare (take a bow Scotland) and that is because the game rewards the better players and the better teams playing the better rugby.

One day, the world might appreciate that rather more?

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