Rugby league must grow internationally
285 Have your say
A few days ago I wrote an article which caused some consternation (and some confusion) among my fellow Roarers.
I suggested change to the World Club Challenge. Either it be better co-ordinated in order to become a more meaningful game for both teams, or it should be scrapped.
This moved some of my readers to suggest that I am ‘insular’ and not interested in the growth of our game internationally.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Firstly, I don’t mind seeing the WCC continue, even within its current framework. I just think it can be better and, given a choice, I’d prefer to see our international team playing in England more often than our premiers.
But let’s return to the question of international growth.
For those readers who mentioned countries like Italy and Lebanon as centres of growth, please send me links to evidence that there is any real interest in league coming out of those countries.
Anthony Minichello playing for Italy does not count, unless 10,000 show up to see him play in Rome.
Instead of worrying about Italy and Lebanon, which will be extremely hard nuts to crack, we should instead be doubling efforts in areas which have greater immediate potential for inroads.
Scotland, Ireland and Wales are filled with enthusiastic rugby players. We need the main bodies of our game, the NRL, the English RFL and the NZRL, to put together a recruitment fund to help the International Rugby League Federation do its work.
And that work would be threefold: 1) bolster local competitions through greater recruitment efforts and promotion to grow the game at the junior level; 2) Ensure regular international contests and promotion of those games and 3); Be prepared to pay union players to also play our game and create infrastructure that allows them to learn and prepare for representative games.
This third part of the overall strategy is pathetically underfunded and under-utilised.
Right now, we have union players in South Africa, France, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and even the United States who could be playing league if we were prepared to pay and train them to represent their nations.
Yes, it may seem like money and effort for little return at first. But the only way we can grow the game internationally is to have legitimate international competition that can be broadcast and promoted.
Citizens from other nations do not care about foreign-born players from thousands of miles away representing their country based on a generational connection forty or fifty years back.
We must be prepared to commit twenty years of funding and infrastructure to the effort of luring union players to league. It is ridiculous that South Africa does not field a team at least the equal of France, Papua New Guinea or one of the Pacific Islands nations.
League must also look to continue building a real local competition in the US while also, and this may seem outlandish, pay ex-grid iron players to come down to Australia to play in the feeder competitions.
This is a no-lose proposition. Having those athletes play league will be enormously entertaining no matter what the outcome while also creating a much more competitive US league team.
Ex-running backs and wide receivers have the potential to be impact players in the middle as yardage men and also out wide as finishers.
If Martin Offiah can represent England, some of these college players could play NSW cup with some time and development. Developing good playmakers in key positions will be more difficult but worth the attempt.
Finally, we must have a yearly Oceania Cup competition, with Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands battling it out with Papua New Guinea. The winner could play either the Kangaroos or an Australia A side.
The game is already making huge inroads in those nations and this would consolidate those gains.
Meaningfully growing the game will take real money and twenty years of consistent work by all the major bodies. It will also mean being realistic about where we stand right now.
Italy, Lebanon and Russia can wait.