Amid some great positive vibes surrounding the Rugby League World Cup, there have also been people commenting that the tournament is a bit mickey mouse, the format is a joke, the scheduling is off, that it’s essentially just musical chairs for NRL players, and that Australia is going to romp it in.
You know what? That’s all true. All of it.
With no teams from Asia, Africa or South America, and two from Continental Europe, it’s hardly a World Cup.
The format is bizarre. In Pools A and B, you didn’t even need to win a game – Samoa’s single draw saw them in the finals, while poor old Ireland and Italy got the big screw over by being placed in a minnow pool.
Yep, it is musical chairs for the NRL players. You didn’t make the Australian team? No problem, see if you have any heritage with the other nations playing, give the coach a ring and walk into the team.
And yes, Australia are going to romp it in. At best they might get a bit of a Test from England or Tonga, but only a fool would bet against them.
But to view the World Cup through those cynical lenses is to miss the point. Rugby league has a World Cup for the same reason that every other sport, no matter how big or small, popular or irrelevant: it gives the players the opportunity to represent their country and people from smaller nations to test their mettle against the best in the game they love.
In that way, it’s no different from the Olympics.
Take the 100-metre sprint. No non-African descended person has won the gold since 1980 – and that was the boycotted Moscow games, when winner Allan Wells ran an embarrassingly slow 10.25. Frankly, I doubt I’ll be alive to see anyone not descended from West Africa win it again either. And I’m 30!
So why do others bother competing? Because athletes want the opportunity to play against the best. It’s why Australia got behind Matt Shirvington, Patrick Johnson, Melinda Gainsford-Taylor and Craig Mottram anyway. We knew they weren’t going to win, but we’d celebrate if they made a final, if Mottram could finish in the top seven, or if Shirvington set a PB. They gave their best against the best.
And then, much like Tonga and Fiji beating New Zealand, every once in a while we’d get super lucky and see a Cathy Freeman or Sally Pearson win Olympic glory, reminding ourselves why we continue to support them.
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The reason we should support the Rugby League World Cup is the same reason why Australians watch the winter Olympics – we shouldn’t really be competing, as our first gold medal was won because literally everyone else fell over – twice!
The second was won in a sport that fortunately does not require any cultural connection or climatic advantage – merely for the participants to be certifiably insane. Another gold was won by a Canadian in disguise, who had Australian heritage, so we rightly treated as Australian as a meat pie – because that’s the Australian thing to do. This was a man whose face was printed on postage stamps, treated as equal – and yet we lambast Australian players for playing for their country of heritage in the World Cup instead of Australia? Double standards anyone?
I could rattle off a list of actors and singers gleefully claimed as being Australian when it’s convenient to do so. The media will claim anyone famous as an Australian if they transited through here, yet throw you under the bus if you want to represent your heritage. Again, double standards?
Finally, yes, the Pacific Island teams have a few NRL top ups, and the Lebanese team was essentially a team of the diaspora in Australia, but it didn’t make them any less Tongan, Fijian or Lebanese. The Lebanese team was the anomaly, not the norm. The other 13 teams were filled with a majority of players born and raised in said nation.
And really, did anyone care? These teams were also filled with lower ranked talent who got vital exposure to the very best rugby league has to offer and will be immeasurably better for it.
The bottom line is it really doesn’t matter for an athlete where they were born. They are all driven by the same desire: they want to play with and against the best, and to represent themselves and their country proud.
It doesn’t matter if the USA got flogged in all three of their games, 20 odd Americans of varying degrees of extraction had the opportunity to play in an international competition. The same can be said for the other 13 teams.
That’s what World Cups are about. That’s what sport is about. And that’s why rugby league deserves to have a World Cup as much as football does, or why athletics, swimming, shooting, and taekwondo deserve the Olympics.
So just enjoy it for what it is.