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The RLIF needs to embrace its scrappy, start-up status

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13th October, 2018
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Despite being over 80 years old, having a global reach and (officially) overseeing an industry worth billions of dollars, the RLIF has something of a start-up feel about it.

They’re the little guys on the world stage – scrambling to keep up with rugby union and barely fit to stand in football’s shadow.

But they’re not without hope. The 2013 Rugby League World Cup was a breakout success, which last year’s edition ­– due in no small way to the phenomenal efforts of Tonga – built upon.

Sure, both were held in rugby league strongholds, with the 2021 World Cup once again to be hosted in the game’s birthplace of Northern England, but in 2025 the global tournament will be held on the biggest stage of all – the US of A.

And the RLIF can take one of two attitudes towards the American tourney.

Either buckle down and do everything in their power to make the international game a feast of entertainment that will – if not turn into rabid fans – at least intrigue the everyday Yank enough to buy a ticket.

Or they can turn on their Everything’s OK alarm and just confidently amble towards what will then surely be an unmitigated disaster.

This is why the RLIF needs to embrace the scrapper attitude.

Start-ups like to describe themselves using words like ‘lean’, ‘agile’ and ‘flexible’ – seriously, you’d think they were gymnasts.

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What they mean ­– and the irony that they don’t just say it isn’t lost on me – is they get shit done.

When you’re small (or at least smallish) it’s much easier to change what you do and how you do it.

I’ve worked at companies worth billions and the level of red tape that needs to be sorted through just to get your email address set up is staggering.

By comparison, I’ve worked at joints where employees had a direct line to the CEO, and good ideas were implemented minutes after they were suggested.

At the moment, the RLIF is more the latter.

Look at the ICC, which set its future tours program in June this year, outlining all international cricket to be played by full member nations from 2019 until 2023.

By comparison, next week’s Test between Australia and Tonga was confirmed at the start of September – some six weeks before the match was due to be played!

It was a simple proposition too: Tonga unexpectedly became the game’s hottest prospect, so a game was swiftly sorted for them to take on the world’s No.1 side – honestly, it takes more wrangling to get a pair of professional boxers in the ring than it did to organise two teams of 17 to face off in a country neither of them call home.

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And yes it’s chalk and cheese, but for all the ICC’s planning, Australia is playing Pakistan with about six people watching on in UAE stadiums at the moment, while the Kangaroos vs Mate Ma’a will be packed to the rafters.

As for Tonga suddenly catching heat during the World Cup, that’s down to another bit of RLIF flexibility.

Where many sports are borderline insane with how strictly they determine international eligibility – Timmy Cahill almost never got a single Socceroos cap because he played two games for Samoa Under-20s when he was a 14-year-old – you can do a bit of chopping and changing in league.

So it was that established Kiwi and Kangaroo stars Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita shunned their respective nations of birth to play for the land of their families’ culture.

Andrew Fifita gets tackled.

(Brendan Esposito / NRL Photos)

That saw New Zealanders David Fusitu’a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma’u similarly defect.

Meanwhile, Tonga’s playing ranks already featured former Origin players Will Hopoate, Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou, as well as ex-Kiwis such as Solomone Kata, Siliva Havili and Sika Manu.

In many other international sports, most of these players would have simply sat out the entire tournament, having previously pledged their allegiance to a country where they no longer make the top team.

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No, the defections on the eve of the tournament weren’t the best look, but it was far better than watching the Kangaroos slaughter a bunch of reserve graders – which was my first taste of international rugby league, sitting on the hill at Marathon Stadium in 1996 as Australia ran over Fiji to the tune of 84-14.

And, again, it was because the RLIF are in a position to simply change their eligibility rules. Not everyone was happy, but it was obviously the best outcome for the game, so it got done.

It’s lean. It’s agile. Dammit, it’s flexible! Someone say the word ‘culture’ and I’ll piss me kecks – I’m on a buzzword binge!

Ultimately though, you only want to be a start-up for as long as you have to.

The ICC’s five-year plan may lack the RLIF’s flexibility, but it’s also indicative of how much more organised and successful the former are.

Similarly, FIFA can afford to be sticklers about international eligibility because the five World Cups held since the turn of the millennium have all been won by different nations, while ‘lesser lights’ such as England, Colombia and Côte d’Ivoire continue to boast quality players and huge support.

I look forward to the day when the RLIF have a five-year tour program, stringent eligibility rules, and are generally just a big, frustrating glacier. It will (hopefully) mean they’ve done their job.

But, to paraphrase a slogan I once saw on a t-shirt, ‘To be slow and lumbering, you must first be lean and agile.’

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And if the RLIF aren’t lean and agile in the lead-up to the 2025 World Cup, they’ll never be slow and lumbering.