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The Denver Test between New Zealand and England has come under scrutiny for various reasons. There is one issue, however, that has not been as well publicised.
Sunday morning’s match, which is the first game in a three-year deal between the two nations, aims to promote international rugby league within the North American market. With the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) set to descend upon USA and Canada in 2025, the Test has been identified by its promoter Jason Moore as the ideal way to expand interest in the event.
Recently, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg, along with South Sydney CEO Blake Solly and RLPA boss Ian Prendergast, signed a letter expressing their concerns over the future of the Test if it remained in June.
However, there is another demand that Greenberg should be making if he is serious about using Mile High Stadium as the new stage for showcasing rugby league in the North American market: the inclusion of Pacific nations.
Last year’s RLWC was a roaring success when it came to crowd numbers and television ratings. It silenced many doubters who questioned whether international rugby league was still relevant.
The reason for this, however, was not the local Kangaroos, who claimed their 11th international title. Nor was it the result of the success experienced by Australia’s grand final opponents, England.
Rather, the interest in last year’s World Cup was inspired by the rise and passion of the nations from the Pacific Islands such as Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
It is their intensity and raw passion for the game that should be advertised to the potential supporter base in North America. After all, it is the new centrepiece of international rugby league.
In last year’s RLWC, the battle between Tonga and Samoa in Hamilton in New Zealand dominated MediaWeek’s Social Content Ratings with over 107,000 interactions.
In contrast, Australia’s opener with England generated over 46,000 interactions.
The online interest in the game began before the game even started, with viewers captivated by the traditional hymns and war dances that preceded the official kick-off.
Equally touching was Fijian captain Kevin Naiqama’s tears as he sung his national anthem ‘Meda Dau Doka’ (God Bless Fiji) in their quarter-final against New Zealand.
The emotion transferred onto the football field, with Fiji pulling off a stunning 4-2 upset victory over the Kiwis.
It was the first time in 22 years that a Tier 2 nation had beaten a Tier 1 team in the World Cup.
The changing of eligibility rules also aided the rise of the smaller island nations, with Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo’s newfound Tongan allegiance being the most notable example.
Both sacrificed a pay rise to commit to Tonga over Australia and New Zealand respectively. This choice speaks to the great honour associated with representing Pacific nations at the international level.
On the other hand, New Zealand coach Michael Maguire has been able to scrape together a 19-man squad for the inaugural match, with seven uncapped Kiwis and five Pacific Island representatives selected. While several players withdrew due to injury, early signs indicate that the Denver Test could be the new City versus Country clash, with concerns over player welfare diminishing enthusiasm for the game.
That issue may be solved if the Test is shifted away from June to a quieter period in the rugby league calendar. Regardless, short of financial incentives, there is no guarantee that players from New Zealand and England will continue to support the initiative.
If we are adamant on selling rugby league in North America, the product we send must be the best.
The sport’s emotion and passion is its most valuable asset. The triumph of the Pacific nations in last year’s World Cup proved the game is at its best when the jersey means something special to those wearing it.
And nowhere does it mean more than in the Pacific islands.