Why the winners of rugby league are not trying hard enough to expand the international game

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By The Conversation, The Conversation is a Roar Guru


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    The Rugby League World Cup of 2017 ended with victory for Australia. Untouchable throughout the tournament, they beat England 6-0 in a tense final, winning the competition for the 11th time. In three of the four world cups they haven’t won, Australia were runners up. The Conversation

    The country’s dominance of international rugby league reflects a series of dilemmas the sport’s authorities have struggled to navigate.

    Historically, rugby league is restricted to provincial prominence in its two strongest nations. In England, the game has been concentrated in the north, ever since its inception 120 years ago. Despite numerous attempts to develop the sport outside this area (most notably in London) the amateur and professional powerhouses of rugby league are defiantly northern.

    Similarly, in Australia, the sport’s strongholds remain New South Wales and Queensland. Australia’s top tier domestic club league (National Rugby League) also shares notable similarities with its English counterpart (Super League).

    Neither feature conventional promotion and relegation processes. The English Super League has a convoluted format of play-offs, with lower-ranked Super League teams playing a round-robin against stronger teams from the league below, culminating in a winner-takes-all promotion play-off match, the £1m game.

    Both leagues boast lucrative international broadcast contracts, and both include foreign teams. A team from New Zealand travels across the Tasman sea to fulfil Australian NRL fixtures, and the French side Catalans Dragons is one of 12 teams in the English Super League.

    Shaun Johnson running with football

    (AAP Image/David Rowland)

    This anomaly highlights an issue currently restricting the domestic and international growth of the sport. Because while France and New Zealand both have flourishing provincial leagues of their own, they have to do without their stronger clubs.

    Rugby league faces a further dilemma with the formation of a professional Canadian club (Toronto Wolfpack), seeking to establish itself in the Super League. The team entered the semi-professional third tier of the English game, gaining promotion in their first year, and aim to achieve Super League status in 2019.

    The entrepreneurs behind this venture are seeking to establish clubs in other major north American cities. The Wolfpack negotiated its own television deal, and has developed a business model similar to those of successful American professional sports franchises.

    In contrast, the national rugby league team of Canada is still in its infancy, and yet to appear in a World Cup tournament. A similar situation exists for the USA side (which did participate in the 2017 World Cup, suffering three defeats at the group stage), a third of whom were Australian or New Zealand nationals.

    The struggle for domestic and international success in places like Canada and the US highlights the source of the expansionist dilemma for rugby league. While financially sustainable clubs find a home in overseas competitions (strengthening the financial reach and broadcast value of their host leagues overseas) their absence from domestic competitions has a detrimental effect.

    This is beneficial in the short term for Australia and England, but hampers those earnestly trying to develop the game elsewhere.

    Meanwhile, the Rugby League International Federation, represented by the director of the Super League and CEO of the NRL, also oversees governance of the sport internationally – and rules about players’ international eligibility.

    These criteria enable individual players to be selected for multiple countries. This led to many smaller Pacific nations calling up players unlikely to make the 2017 World Cup squads of the three top-tier nations (Australia, New Zealand and England) and who were deemed eligible by parental/grandparental or residency criteria.

    There were contrasting fortunes for these teams: while Wales, Scotland and Ireland failed to progress beyond the group stages, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Fiji reached the knockout rounds. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of these more successful nations’ squads play professionally in the NRL or Super League.

    Daniel Tupou Tonga


    Playing away

    This manipulation of international eligibility rules can have a beneficial effect in avoiding “walkover” results such as the 74-6 defeat for Scotland against New Zealand. But for smaller national federations, it places a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the professional English and Australian league bodies. The current system provides an international platform to further promote the talent of their globally recognised and financially healthy domestic leagues.

    For nations seeking to emulate that growth, their emergent domestic talent would likely be encouraged to compete overseas to reach elite level international competition. It is wholly conceivable that a young Canadian talent might be recruited by the Toronto team, end up competing exclusively against English opposition in the Super League – and then play for England because of eligibility rules.

    Recent calls for the strongest nations to subsidise the growth of “tier two” rugby league nations and their developing leagues has gathered traction. But the sporadic and limited growth of domestic competitions seems to be mirrored in the stuttering growth of the international game.

    As long as the strength of English and Australian professional rugby league is disproportionately distributed, growing the reach of the sport will remain restricted. Likewise, on the international stage, those two countries have become the axis of power in the sport, effectively excluding others.

    So who won the Rugby League World Cup? The record books will indicate it was Australia, with their six points against England’s zero. But rather than the speed of the backs or the strength of the forwards, this victory could easily be attributed to the disproportionate power of the two professional leagues that dominate the sport.

    Andy Preston, Programme Leader, Sports Coaching, University of East London

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    The Crowd Says (19)

    • December 7th 2017 @ 7:04am
      Not so super said | December 7th 2017 @ 7:04am | ! Report

      Ok, so they should make themselves less powerful? It’s not like they are involved in battles with other codes at home.

      • December 8th 2017 @ 7:07am
        Worlds Biggest said | December 8th 2017 @ 7:07am | ! Report

        So your saying the NRL and Super League don’t have competition / battles from other sports in there respective countries ?

    • December 7th 2017 @ 7:12am
      Matt said | December 7th 2017 @ 7:12am | ! Report

      The game of Rugby League has always been run and controlled for the benefit of professional players and their clubs. Right from the very early days of the split from Rugby Union it was about rewarding and attracting the best players for club football.

      Over 100 years later we’re still in the same situation whereby the NRL and Super League are the engine for the game and retain primacy of power. The leaders of the sport will allow international events because they want attract attention and gather more athletes for their club competitions. But they will not allow international events to take primacy or threaten their club competitions.

      The 2017 RLWC was successful because it allowed the spreading of NRL (and Super League) talent to weaker teams. This made the competition more attractive and simultaneously allowed players from the club competitions to gain more attention. Next season the NRL will look to leverage player profiles and push to scout more athletic talent from countries which participated in the cup. For example Auckland already loses around 500 boys a year to Australian Rugby League contracts, a large proportion of these are of Pacific Island heritage. The RLWC is a platform from which the NRL can attract talent and it will be setup and run in a manner to best achieve that.

      Next season the NRL clubs will not want competition during the season and will want to maximise the duration of the season to increase earnings. Therefore they will prevent international matches occuring. Super League have less money and domestic profile and will therefore be willing to push international matches more in order to try and increase income and media attention to the game. But that is in the hope that eventually enough attention will lead to more money and better players for their clubs.

      If Rugby League was primarily about growing the game by developing amateur players and increasing general participation it would prioritise domestic players and channel money to new competitions in emerging countries. But it is not, it is about professional clubs and players. The same as it ever was…

      • December 7th 2017 @ 10:52am
        Peeeko said | December 7th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

        Auckland already loses around 500 boys a year to Australian Rugby League?
        Where you hear that ?

        • Roar Rookie

          December 7th 2017 @ 12:35pm
          Don said | December 7th 2017 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

          That was plucked out of the nether regions…

          Even when the U20s comp was in place it had 480 players.
          Given most of the guys played in that comp for 3 years we would need to see some massive recruiting across Australian clubs of Auckland youth to get near 500 per year.
          I doubt the real figure would even be 50.

          More Auckland males would come here each year to be scaffolders on building sites than come here on Australian rugby league contracts from what I observe…

        • December 7th 2017 @ 7:14pm
          Matt said | December 7th 2017 @ 7:14pm | ! Report

          That was the quote given this week by the CEO of Auckland Rugby League. It is a primary reason why they want to align the amateur in NZ with the professional. Because at present one is consuming the other.


          Love your maths though Don. I guess the ARL were using a different calculator. Where did you pull yours from?

    • December 7th 2017 @ 9:05am
      Peter Phelps said | December 7th 2017 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      “playing a round-robin against stronger teams from the league below, culminating in a winner-takes-all promotion play-off match, the £1m game.”

      This is not quite right. The million pound game is played between the 3rd and 4th ranked teams in the “Qualifiers” competition for the right to join teams 1 and 2 in the Superleague the following year. Teams 1 & 2 gain automatic promotion. The losers of the million pound game and those ranked below team 4 are “relegated” to the 2nd division.

    • December 7th 2017 @ 10:25am
      paul said | December 7th 2017 @ 10:25am | ! Report

      I read this article twice and still can’t see how either England and Australia are not trying hard enough to expand the international game? What exactly do both countries have to do, bearing in mind the Clubs in each country (and France) are really the ones who must have a major say, because they’re the ones paying these guys the big bucks?

      I have no idea what it costs to put a side into the English League but I’d guess in Australia, you’d get no change out of $30 million. So that’s what New Guinea for example, wold have to come up with, every year, if it wanted to play in the NRL.

      The fact is, most places around the world don’t have that sort of money and are not likely to generate that in the near future. More to the point, it is not up to English or Australian clubs to “help” as most are struggling to meet their own payrolls and without the Clubs, you don’t have players to play internationally or domestically.

      • December 7th 2017 @ 3:35pm
        woodart said | December 7th 2017 @ 3:35pm | ! Report

        with that attitude, league will never amount to much. a great game ,hamstrung by inward looking mediocrity. as a Kiwi ,who lives light years away from auckland, I dont support the warriors, or any other club, and SOO bores me to tears. international league gets me excited about league, club league,yawn. so, do I go somewhere else for the next four years until the next world league cup?

        • December 7th 2017 @ 3:44pm
          paul said | December 7th 2017 @ 3:44pm | ! Report

          Sorry to have bored you, but it’s not inward looking, it’s the current reality. My question is simple; who is going to pay for this expansion?

    • December 7th 2017 @ 4:28pm
      Terry Tavita said | December 7th 2017 @ 4:28pm | ! Report

      perhaps it will also help to look at the game itself..is it attractive enough to gain new fans? new domestic/ pro competitions in new frontier countries?..what is it about rugby union that allows it to grow organically in new locales without much help from World Rugby?..your answer lies there..as much as rl people and rl roar people hate it, you gotta look at the competition and take your cue from there..

      • December 7th 2017 @ 8:06pm
        Cathar Treize said | December 7th 2017 @ 8:06pm | ! Report

        But rugby league is setting up in many places organically & without a lot of finance. I think you’ll find rugby union does need a boost of world rugby money if it needs to go to the next level. Also that sport benefited greatly from being part of the ‘accepted’ elitist machine of the British empire & lots of rich kids of the elite in many countries went to the UK for their education & surprise surprise union was a school sport but league wasn’t. Now that boosted union big time. There are lots of facts to think about Terry.

        Rugby league is now benefiting from the new wave of sports entrepreneurs if we can call them that & Australia has a lot to do with that with expats who chose league as their game, taking it back to the country of their parents. More recent one is Cameroon which has just received observer status and are running an 8 club comp all from the efforts of an expat who had lived in Australia. Thailand rugby league now has govt recognition & started up by Aussies who live there (big expat numbers) & the offspring of Thai/Aussies. Ditto Latin America in another article.

        • December 8th 2017 @ 7:32am
          pillga said | December 8th 2017 @ 7:32am | ! Report

          Scotland has 3 clubs one of which Scotlands most successful club the Ednibourgh eagles operates out of a rugby club and Scotland is a power house in the international game
          Their is no rugby league clubs in Tasmania at all
          Yet here is Cameroon with 8 clubs can you fact check this , name the clubs and the expat who is developing the game there or is this just more stories of international league bull%$#@

          • December 8th 2017 @ 8:34am
            Cathar Treize said | December 8th 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

            I think no one has denied what is happening to Scotland thanks Pilga, it is a bug bear to many fans of the international game, should check out TotalRL’s forums to see that. What is certain is your arrogance. I’m sure there are no rugby union clubs in North Korea hence how ridiculous to suggest rugby union is played anywhere else by your reasoning.

            You calling people like this guy a liar?


            Gee, get over yourself, rugby league has every right to develop & doesn’t need your pessimism to do it. Shouldn’t you be discussing 42 less rules in rugby union? Sounds like it will become rugby league one day.

          • December 8th 2017 @ 9:01am
            Cathar Treize said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:01am | ! Report

            How dare they try, what audacity to think a basic human right ever extends to rugby league people.


          • December 9th 2017 @ 8:11am
            Crosscoder said | December 9th 2017 @ 8:11am | ! Report

            gee pillga,you’re making life so easy.

            The 8 Cameroon clubs are as follows:-
            Yaounde”-based Dragons RL
            Bulls RL
            Raiders RL
            Petou Institut RL
            Panthers RL
            Babadjou RL
            Kumbla RL

            Another 5 clubs are in the process of being formed.

            The code receives support by the French RL Federation and the Cameroon Sports Ministry.
            The Cameroon RL exec committee is led by Chairman Samuel Tayou part of a local 7 strong exec.committee.Not expats.

            For every obvious Scotland debacle there are many more positives in other countries.

      • Roar Rookie

        December 13th 2017 @ 2:05am
        William Dalton Davis said | December 13th 2017 @ 2:05am | ! Report

        Rugby Union grows organically? They had to try (and in some cases were successful) and ban Rugby League in countries so they’d be the only game in town. That’s hardly organic.

    • December 7th 2017 @ 5:55pm
      Mike from tari said | December 7th 2017 @ 5:55pm | ! Report

      If you have to reduce the amount of NRL & Super League games to fit in International games, then you will reduce the amount of money that the Broadcasters pay will reduce that is why it is difficult to fit in Internationals, I for one am a little greedy as I don’t want the NRL season reduced but this WC with the NRL & Super League players in the other teams made it very exciting.
      Just one thing, the Kumuls did not have a majority of NRL players.

      • December 7th 2017 @ 7:05pm
        Terry Tavita said | December 7th 2017 @ 7:05pm | ! Report

        you can package the internationals with the nrl matches and sell it to the broadcasters..

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