Any success from this tournament belongs to the players

Robert Burgin Columnist

By Robert Burgin, Robert Burgin is a Roar Expert

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    “So Fiji is actually a real place?”

    “I knew it was a real place, but I just thought it was a party island – like Ibiza – not a real country.”

    “I didn’t think it was real at all. I thought it was a made-up place…somewhere with a funny name that people say they are going to visit in the movies.”

    During this year’s Rugby League World Cup, I’ve been able to see the tournament from some perspectives I’d never really considered before.

    Aside from the opening game between Australia and England in Melbourne – where my Uber driver didn’t even know there was a game on that day, let alone a whole tournament commencing – I have followed all the other games from overseas.

    During this six-week period, I’ve been travelling between the United Arab Emirates, England, Denmark, France, Portugal, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

    It’s been a completely opposite vantage point to what I had at the 2013 World Cup, where I attended roughly 20 of the games held around Great Britain and France.

    Instead of being on the inside looking out, I’ve been on the outside looking in.

    It’s a perspective which could be helpful for many of the game’s decision-makers (and indeed diehard fans), who are so invested on a day-to-day basis that it’s hard for them to conceive how the other 99 per cent of the planet view the sport.

    Fast forward to the morning of the World Cup decider (7am in Brazil), and I’m sitting on a couch with four rural Brazilians trying to explain the road to the final.

    “So England just beat Tonga in one semi-final and Australia beat Fiji…”

    Thus ensued an earnest conversation among the Brazilians about the validity of Fiji as a real country.

    Joe Lovodua Fiji Rugby League World Cup 2017

    (NRLPhotos/Scott Davis)

    This, despite the fact Fiji won gold in rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics little more than a year ago.

    Truth be known, I’ve discovered a fair proportion of South Americans know the bare minimum when it comes to Pacific Island nations, save aside Australia and New Zealand.

    But I guess it’s not too different to the multiple polls and vox pops conducted showing a decent whack of people in the USA have next to no idea about northern neighbours Canada.

    In order to explain the relevance of the Pacific Islands to rugby league as a sport, I went searching online for the NRL Pasifika Strategy.

    The top Google result was an NRL video produced when the program was launched in 2014, with the three main spokespeople being David Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Jarryd Hayne.

    “Who is that guy?” one of the Brazilians asked.

    “He was the former head of rugby league in Australia,” I began to reply.

    “But this was only three years ago, yeah? He introduced this strategy and now he’s gone?”

    Thankfully the next person came on, espousing what a great thing the strategy was for the sport.

    “That guy looks familiar,” said my brother-in-law.

    “That’s Sonny Bill Williams, you’ve probably seen him playing for the All Bla….ah, he was a player with a Sydney club called the Roosters when this video was made and he represented New Zealand too.”

    “But he doesn’t play for them anymore.”

    “Ah no, he plays rugby union now (the sport I’d previously spent several days of conversations differentiating from league).”

    “Oh, ok.”

    Then Jarryd Hayne came on. My lord, I thought, however will I explain a guy who had so much conviction to a strategy that he played three different sports, has twice changed rugby league clubs in the space of three years, and changed his international affiliation to suit?

    “This guy, he errr… still plays for Fiji,” I said, taking the coward’s way out.

    Jarryd Hayne

    (NRLPhotos/Ben Southall)

    There’s a massive geography nerd inside of me that is still quite indignant my Brasilian friends had no idea where most of the Pacific nations were on a map.

    So from that perspective, you could maybe say the rugby league World Cup has delivered countries like Tonga and Fiji an invaluable recognition boost.

    But let’s not kid ourselves that every household had a rugby league anorak from half a world away insisting everybody wake up early on a Saturday morning to watch a game they knew basically nothing about.

    If you think about it logically, if you’re in a country of 210 million people, your considerations for nations of 800,000 or less are probably not overly demanding.

    There are 20 cities in Brazil with a larger population than the entirety of Fiji. Mind-blowingly, there are almost 300 cities there with a larger population than Tonga.

    Before you jump down my throat and say ‘who cares?’, I’ll make it clear this column in no way seeks to demean the breakout performances of the island nations.

    As a person who lives and breathes the sport, I’ve ridden the wave of excitement caused by the Pacific nations and Lebanon as much as anyone.

    I’ve pined for the rugby league landscape to change, and it has made a sizeable shift these past few weeks.

    I’ll defend the sport and its showpiece to the hilt, wanting nothing but positivity for international expansion of the game.

    But I will make a very clear and blunt observation from the past six weeks abroad.

    Any ripples the 2017 Rugby League World Cup has made on a global stage have been almost entirely attributable to the players, not the tournament’s international communications strategy.

    I’ve felt the utter frustration of being 20 minutes outside Huddersfield – the birthplace of rugby league – when a triple-header of games was taking place on the World Cup and there was nowhere you could watch any of the games on TV.

    On another day in England, I personally rang two Australian-themed pubs and a local rugby league club and asked if they would consider opening an hour earlier than normal to show Australia versus France.

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    This was not only met with a blunt refusal, but when I showed up at one High Street venue at 10am to watch the second half, they wouldn’t show it, despite having access to the correct channel, playing 80s video clips instead.

    Said venue is so tightly linked to Australians abroad it is almost a punchline these days. Its chain of venues is where anybody goes to watch the NRL finals or State of Origin. You’d think the RLWC2017 team would have shaken hands with them on a deal well in advance.

    I’ve felt the frustration of searching for the official livestream carrier in most of the countries I’ve visited.

    In nearly every case it was buried beneath unofficial pirated streams or unrelated match reports.

    Tell me another major corporation or event that would stand for such poor results in search engine optimization and you’re probably talking about a company that is considering bankruptcy or employing a new tech team.

    With three weeks to go in a six-week tournament, I was contacted by a livestream company while I was in Peru, wanting a hand to promote their new agreement to cover the sport for Latin America.

    By that stage, any of the 600 million people in Latin America who cared about the tournament were already using an unofficial app or unapproved website to watch the games.

    The licensed company wanted to charge a subscription cost equivalent to 20 per cent of many wages in Peru.

    There were so many instances in this World Cup where vital communications considerations to the outside world were left to the last minute or poorly conceived, it would be misrepresentative for me to gloss over them.

    Nonetheless, wanting to help boost the sport and encourage more official rugby league streams in the future, the day before the final I decided to post a link to the company on more than 20 Facebook pages.

    It was only after waking up at 3.45am in Brazil I realised this ‘official’ stream would only include the men’s game, and not the eagerly anticipated women’s final between Australia and New Zealand.

    Caitlin Moran

    (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

    That was a bitter blow, not solely for my Brazilian friends who went back to bed for another three hours, but for the actual code.

    One thing I’ve noticed while in South America is the heightened, advanced taste for women’s contact sports as opposed to other regions.

    The recent Latin American Rugby League Championship exhibited women’s teams a full year ahead of schedule, women are not afraid to play against men there, and in a handful of countries, it is women who are driving the appetite for the game.

    One thing I’ve said before and will say again is if your own PR team doesn’t value something, why should anybody else?

    I’ll be honest, in terms of dropped balls, the streaming company was allowed to commit a sin far worse than anything levied at Tom Burgess.

    I’m readying myself for the onslaught of comments about ‘how many rugby league players have come from outside the Pacific or western Europe’, but let’s talk about sports who do this stuff well.

    The NBA, the English Premier League and UFC are widely recognised in countries where none of their athletes come from.

    The Olympics is still watched by nations that don’t win any medals.

    How does rugby union get away with creating hype around the Hong Kong Sevens for 40 years and we are moving the Auckland Nines after a handful?

    In nearly every instance I have introduced someone to the sport of rugby league, they have enjoyed watching it, even if they don’t have the inclination to play it themselves.

    Within a short time some have gone from knowing next to nothing, to becoming fanatics, to attending the World Cup final.

    The players who took the field at this tournament can to a man (and woman) look themselves in the mirror and say they gave it everything, left no stone unturned in their preparation.

    Can the off-field teams say the same?

    I’m sure the prime minister or the head of tourism in Fiji would be over the moon if they felt the tournament had genuinely educated people around the world about their nation – not that it occurred through happenstance.

    Just as I’m sure the people of Brazil (or even South Yorkshire) would like to think they were considered in advance and targeted by a code that cares about their viewing eyes.

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.

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    The Crowd Says (19)

    • December 4th 2017 @ 7:26am
      VanMac said | December 4th 2017 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      Great article, Robert.

      Another case of the bean counters hurting the sport they work for.

      I wish you all the best, mate

    • Roar Pro

      December 4th 2017 @ 7:41am
      swamprat said | December 4th 2017 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Good article . Frustrating to see the levels of Incompetence in marketing Rugby League.

    • December 4th 2017 @ 8:10am
      Robbie said | December 4th 2017 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      Sadly,it doesn’t grip the world anywhere.Northern England only cares about their club football,Aussie SoO,and we have the Warrriors????? .Not to worry,if you like a sport who cares what others think,they go on about Rugby being a minority sport but do we care?.Soccer is the world sport because no intelligence is required to support it,even if much skill is required to play it?

    • December 4th 2017 @ 8:58am
      Greg Ambrose said | December 4th 2017 @ 8:58am | ! Report

      Kokomo are entering a team in the next world cup. They’ve sorted out their national anthem but they aren’t expected to trouble the heavyweights too much. They’re hoping to play New Zealand in the early rounds.

      • December 4th 2017 @ 1:59pm
        Fred said | December 4th 2017 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

        You are an outstanding comedian, honestly.

    • December 4th 2017 @ 9:09am
      not so super said | December 4th 2017 @ 9:09am | ! Report

      This, despite the fact Fiji won gold in rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics little more than a year ago

      this shows how little the Olympics progressed Union

      • December 4th 2017 @ 12:39pm
        Jacko said | December 4th 2017 @ 12:39pm | ! Report

        Yeah coz people who dont know that FIJI is a country should know the Union results at the Olympics eh

      • December 4th 2017 @ 9:17pm
        Terry Tavita said | December 4th 2017 @ 9:17pm | ! Report

        yea, let’s go find people who don’t know rugby union and fiji so we can lay claim that it’s a minority obscure sport..dumb

    • December 4th 2017 @ 11:06am
      Cathar Treize said | December 4th 2017 @ 11:06am | ! Report

      “How does rugby union get away with creating hype around the Hong Kong Sevens for 40 years and we are moving the Auckland Nines after a handful?”

      I think there are a number of factors incl a large diverse expat community from the main RU playing nations, accessibility from all parts of the world & HK doesn’t really have many body contact sports events like Auckland would. I think RL should have their Nines in a place like Singapore or Bangkok, now that would be fun!

      • December 8th 2017 @ 9:22pm
        Jacko said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:22pm | ! Report

        The funny thing is that NZ fans come from everywhere to watch…They dont play it a lot but there isnt the Rugby Union v Rugby league constant arguement like there is in Aus. Just look at the Crowd figures from the recent WC in NZ v games in Aus and even the Non NZ matches got great crowds…All from a country most say is Union-centric

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