Stage set for RLWC 2017 to help brew growth

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    Make no mistake, the clandestine decisions of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to defect from their countries of origin to play for their countries of heritage is a landmark moment for international rugby league.

    Both players will forego significant sums of money to play for the minnow rugby league nation of Tonga. Their decisions have the ability to influence future players to make decisions about their representative careers not solely based on money.

    Many will scoff at the influence now, citing both players’ dissatisfactions with their national team set-ups as the reason for their defections, but their transition has awoken interest in a tournament that has traditionally only ever been perceived as a battle between Australia, New Zealand and England.

    At the 2008 World Cup – also played in Australia – Jarryd Hayne played for Fiji at a time when the game had not made significant inroads with the island nation. You could argue that Hayne’s representation during that tournament helped propel interest in the smaller nations and highlight the opportunities of growing the game throughout the Pacific.

    Over the last 15 or so years, the amount of Polynesian players in the game has increased dramatically. This has helped not only New Zealand in becoming stronger through players who often move to the country at young age, but has seen a sharp development in Pacific nations.

    While the battles between Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea during the NRL midseason seemed more of a gimmick when first introduced, their capacity to attract genuine interest from a broader variety of rugby league fan is beginning to take hold.

    It is likely that in a few years, these matches will find an equal place among State of Origin matches, filling in the gaps of stand-alone weekends. The opportunity to incorporate Northern Hemisphere teams in a full-scale midyear break in domestic competitions is something that could be explored.

    The inclusion of the Papua New Guinea Hunters in the Queensland Cup has helped boost the depth and overall strength of the nation and can only be seen to improve the country’s footprint.

    It is also with great optimism that the introduction of the Toronto Wolfpack into England – via the third tier of the Rugby Football League – that hope of a revival of the sport can take hold in that part of the world.

    The administration involved in making their existence possible should be applauded for their bold risk to accept a cross-continent possibility. If the Wolfpack and perhaps another team can be introduced to the Rugby Football League and attract a new wave of interest to the game both in North America and Europe, the international game is only going to benefit.

    Furthermore, the Rugby League International Federation has made one of the best long-term decisions in quite some time. In 2025, the Rugby League World Cup will be played in North America.

    This gives the entire sport something to work towards. If improvements can be made in the payments of players to all nations in the tournament, not just the big three of Australia, England and New Zealand, then the potential to grow the game is wide open.

    North America is perhaps rugby league’s most underutilised source of talent identification, player development and game exposure, given the size of the population and love of sport in both the USA and Canada.

    It will require a commitment from all forms of administration in the game, but with the RLIF now having full-time employees and the game beginning to make even the smallest footprint in the area, it gives hope of strong, long-term growth.

    Detractors can shoot it down all they like, but unless people make decisions like Fifita and Tamaulolo to do something out of the norm and against the tide of money, the game will continue to exist in its insular form.

    Andrew-Fifita-Australia-Rugby-League-Kangaroos-Anzac-Test-2017

    NRL Photos/Grant Trouville

    Would Semi Radradra have ever played for Australia if there was the same $20,000 on the table to play for Fiji?

    With so many NRL players turning out for some of the smaller nations at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, interest in the tournament will perhaps be at its highest ever.

    The 2013 tournament in the United Kingdom saw huge interest from the English fans in the matches of the smaller nations. Played at some of the old-style, packed-in grounds to full-houses – and on the back of Andrew Voss’ talented commentary – these matches were exciting and appealing to fans in Australia.

    With matches being played right across Australia, New Zealand and in Papua New Guinea, the 2017 tournament has the potential to garner more interest.

    To Andrew Fifita, Jason Tamaulolo, Jarryd Hayne, Mitch Moses, Josh Papalii, James Segeyaro, Paul Vaughan, Robbie Farah, James Tedesco and anyone else turning out for a minnow nation, thank you.

    For you are contributing to the long-term growth of rugby league.

    People might not see it on the surface, but these decisions are helping a wider development of the greatest game of all.

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