Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) Chair Nigel Wood said this week that a nine-a-side World Cup could be held in 2019.
According to Wood, plans could be confirmed before the start of the 13-a-side World Cup in October.
“We think it’s a good way of bringing some of the tier two and tier three nations into the public domain more than we do at the moment,” Wood said.
“I’d be disappointed if by the start of the World Cup we weren’t clear about what we are doing in 2019 and how it would work and how the nations would qualify.”
The announcement of a world event for rugby league 9s is intriguing for a number of reasons.
The RLIF are showing vision and future planning which has been sorely lacking at times.
Rugby league administrators have been content in the past to have strong NRL/Super League competitions, State of Origin and a limited three way international environment.
Let’s be clear – this isn’t really about Australia, England and New Zealand. It is an opportunity to engage a wider more diverse audience in the game of rugby league albeit in an abbreviated or ‘pyjama’ form.
Rugby union has had success in growing the game internationally through a dedicated world sevens circuit for men and women, leading to the sport becoming an Olympic event.
Countries such as the USA, Canada and Kenya are highly competitive in the World Sevens Series, opening up new markets for venues, fans, sponsors and television coverage. Russia, Spain, and Japan are also on the professional circuit.
The key to rugby union’s success in attracting new audiences is providing entertainment with action and movement without the complicated and pedantic rules around scrummaging, rucks and mauls.
Sevens rugby works well in Greece for instance where participation numbers are low and players are still learning the rules.
The Greek rugby league held a successful 8s tournament on the island of Rhodes last year which included a team from Turkey and an Australian Greek Squad.
Rugby league 9s is in its infancy and the annual Auckland event is not without its issues.
NRL clubs have shown a distinct lack of interest in the tournament, sending star depleted squads to avoid pre season injuries. Many teams have insisted on playing 13-a-side low error, five hit ups and a long kick style footy that has left some fans ambivalent.
This is not about taking away from traditional 13-a-side rugby league. It is another product to bring more fans to the game. Not dissimilar to modern day cricket.
Traditional international Tests and 80 minute games will always be around for purists.
If there is an opportunity to attract new people to the game with a short and fast take on the game then why not?
Rugby league could be planning now for a professional men’s and women’s circuit with players from outside the NRL and Super League recruited as specialists on the back of the 9s World Cup.
Rules can be modified around play the balls and kicking to speed up the game and encourage players to play an exciting brand of rugby league.
Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea would take to the game like ducks to water and provide an exciting brand of rugby league for fans.
The latest RLIF world rankings list 42 countries playing the game. The possibility of holding tournaments in the USA and Canada on the back of the Toronto Wolfpack or Serbia who are emerging as a force in Europe would surely be an attractive proposition for potential sponsors.
The importance of the Asian market cannot be denied as evidenced by the current push by the AFL into China.
The opportunity has arrived. Rugby League has a footprint in many new countries. These fledgling competitions are eager to go to the next level of participation and interest.
Rugby League has traditionally perceived itself to be the more professional and innovative of the rugby codes
This time the sport should take a leaf out of rugby union’s old leather bound book and pursue the shortened version of the game to boost international growth.