The Roar
The Roar


International rugby league doesn't yet turn on the tap, let alone wash its face

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29th October, 2018
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We ‘international rugby league is the future’ types have been getting a bit smug lately.

Even the really rusted-on “you’re delusional’ commenters at the bottom of columns like this have gone away of late. Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo scared them off.

And, to dot the final I and cross the last T, a New Zealand side that was shockingly beaten by Tonga and Fiji in the space of a week last year (and 12 months before, drew with Scotland) actually defeated Australia only a fortnight ago.

And then on Saturday, England beat them! What a great scene it is, international rugby league. Oh yes, we were right all along … haha.

Except, er, that New Zealand-Australia match attracted 12,763 people to Mt Smart Stadium. And that Test on Saturday at KC Stadium only convinced 17,649 to brave the Hull chill.

If promoter Jason Moore got into difficulty after getting a bigger crowd than each of June’s competing teams can draw on home soil in their respective hotbeds, perhaps he can go down as optimist of the year.

International rugby league might be enjoying a surge in profile but it still can’t pay for itself.

In Australia, individual home Tests are reportedly covered by the existing television deals, which means they are kinda played for free. In Britain, two of England’s most recent internationals were streamed on a app – at least in part because TV had no interest in them.

And Tonga might seem a singular cultural phenomenon but TV rights in the tiny country aren’t going to make anyone rich.

Tongan fans in the crowd

A lone Australian flag is seen in a sea of Tonga fans (AAP Image/David Rowland)

Next week, the Rugby League International Federation will meet in York to “finalise a calendar”. Now, just substitute York for some other place name and tell us how many times you’ve read that sentence.

They face many complex problems but the most significant is one perhaps you’ve stared down before: not enough money.

Australia want to travel to the northern hemisphere at the end of the year but if Great Britain are to be revived and sent to Botany Bay, there are suggestions the Aussies don’t want a bar of them.

The last two internationals I’ve attended have been Serbia-Spain in Belgrade and Ireland-Scotland in Dublin. I loved every minute of each experience but the combined crowd for the two of them was around 600.

That, realistically, is where international rugby league is – a bag search because the venue’s a police academy, a game listed in Fox League’s schedule covered by a bloke with a hand-sized camcorder and a fella supposed to be starting on the bench knocking on at the kick-off.

We previewed the previous RLIF meeting with a gag about Singapore (Mud) Sling. I sacrificed accuracy for a cheap joke there – it actually seemed to work out OK with the newish Aussie leadership of Peter Beattie being brought up to speed on what the rest of the world had been planning for more than a year after the ARLC put out its own make-believe schedule.

The World Cup seems a long, long time ago – not just 12 months. But it was clear that if economically developing countries are successful and economically developed countries keep getting beaten, once we stop cheering the upsets, we’ll have less money.

James Tedesco of Australia on the charge during the International Test match against Tonga.

James Tedesco of Australia on the charge during the International Test match against Tonga. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Money comes from TV networks in rich countries and spectators in same.

It’s an important meeting next week – the RLIF needs more revenue streams and it can’t milk the north of England dry over the next three years in the lead-up to a World Cup that will be based there.

Somehow, the NRL need to be convinced they’re in control so the sport gets their financial assistance – but actually have them not in control all all.

Perhaps the Italian delegate, Mr Machiavelli, needs to take control.