Rugby league has the potential for a reputable international competition. It would require foresight, sacrifice and humility, but it can be done.
Foresight because it would likely take 20 years before the international game would be truly competitive and sacrifice, as the RLIF would need to spend some funds that might otherwise go towards the league’s small heartland areas.
Most importantly humility, as there will be obvious comparisons to rugby union’s international game. However, the aim should not be to have bragging rights or, for that matter, to even compete with other sports like union and football, because there will likely be an unflattering result, particularly with numbers of contending counties and worldwide participation.
The aim should be a competitive, enthralling and, dare I say, marketable top-tier of the game that league deserves. The intention should undoubtedly be about establishing league’s international identity, not inspiring to copy another game’s.
An uncluttered simple quadrennial system for the international calendar that gives developing nations a chance to grow whilst also not being overtaxing on the elite players would be ideal. Here is one idea of how that may work:
Year One: Northern Hemisphere teams travel south for a tour.
Year Two: Two separate ‘Divisional’ Cup competitions: Northern Hemisphere – Great Britain, France, Celts (see below) and USA. Southern Hemisphere- Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Pacific Islands.
Year Three: Southern Hemisphere teams travel north for a tour.
Year Four: International Cup comprising 10 teams (two pools of five with semi-finals and grand final); four top teams, each from the North and South Divisions, plus two other qualifiers.
A few things must happen first. The game in England must stop its reliance on Aussies and Kiwis, especially in the key roles. A significant rise in the NRL’s salary cap would keep a lot more stars in the game, which is entirely crucial.
It would require the RLIF realising that composite teams could be an excellent option of developing the game. A Pacific Islands team would quickly be up to standard, and a Celts team comprising those of Irish, Scottish and Welsh heritage could do the same, with the right nurturing. Also, representative games during the season would need to be added to give these players the experience to excel at the top level.
In both the North and South there could be a carnival of rep games that would allow stand alone weekends for State of Origin games, as it would give broadcasters the extra games they desire to allow this to happen. For instance, in the South; Fiji, Samoa and Tonga could play each other once during this period. A Kiwi North Island vs South Island game or a Maoris vs NZ XIII game could be a hotly contested selection trial.
Also PNG vs a ‘QLD emerging players’ could accompany the City vs Country fixture as a warm up to the Origin matches. In the North, similar games could be organised as selection matches for the Celts, alongside a Northern Union versus Rest of England team fixture.
France versus USA and the lower ranked (or unranked) European teams could battle it for international credibility and possibly the right to play in the International Cup.
Of course this proposal is far from perfect, and would require the USA’s game to be invested in, which may ruffle some feathers. Currently RL has a very small base there, but increasing market share to even one to two per cent of such a large market would be hugely beneficial and could have cascading advantages across the game.
I hope someone in a position of power (and greater knowledge of international league’s intricacies) will take up the challenge.
This could be a base for a proposal that would work and prove very worthwhile in the long run for the game, and hopefully very rewarding for its stakeholders.