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The NRL puts its best foot forward between March and the first weekend of October, but it’s what happens before and after that gives us the most useful insight into its self-image.
Before, we have the All Star game, which will be held this Friday.
All Star matches are an American institution. Sure, the Indigenous and Maori teams are picked along cultural lines rather than what conference the players come from, but the idea comes from a world outside the Victorian-era concepts of caps and representation that govern, say, soccer.
Americans football needs All Star games because other countries don’t play American football to any decent level.
Rugby league is not only played by other nations but was invented – as a protest movement and political schism as much as a separate sport – in another country.
So the evidence is that even though history dictates rugby league is a European sport, the NRL like to think of it as a shag-on-a-rock indigenous sport and of themselves as guardians of such.
Another hint to this perspective is the fact that, last time we looked, the match against the British champions – the World Club Challenge – isn’t even compulsory for NRL clubs. The teams involved are left to sort it out between themselves.
By comparison, the All Star match most certainly is compulsory.
Now, onto the end of the season.
Australia, who make decisions based on the Australian Rugby League Commission, which also governs the NRL, did not want to play the proposed match with Great Britain Lions.
Instead they told a Rugby League International Federation meeting in York last year they wanted to tour Britain themselves. When this was adjudged unsuitable for the promotion of the World Cup in 2021, the Aussies made their own plans.
Now the Great Britain tour itself – from which Tests against Samoa and Fiji have already reportedly been removed – is in danger of being called off completely.
The would-be hosts, New Zealand, are not sure they can make any money from it.
Instead the NRL will play the role of host and promoter of the World Cup Nines at Parramatta, which allows them to fulfil a commitment of sorts to international football while still minimising the impact on players.
The Kiwis are playing Tonga mid-season and the end of the season is supposed to be the continuation of a Pacific tournament that started in the middle, with Australia added. We haven’t seen dates and venues for these matches yet.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the NRL seeing itself as a regional power and tapping into government funds to extend its influence in the Pacific.
There are good players in the Pacific. There’s just not that much money.
Officials in England and France, meanwhile, look on enviously at rugby union’s Six Nations. They know that the 13-a-side game can attract massive TV audiences on the BBC of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in autumn.
They know the Great Britain name carries cache outside the sport – the people audience they are chasing doesn’t know or care that the starting 13 will all be from England.
But these European countries often don’t have anyone to play against; their only credible opposition resides on the other side of the world. Now there is more credible opposition available than at any time since 1895 because of the rise of the Polynesian and Melanesian nations.
But they aren’t so ‘available’ either, because of the difficulties in getting the players released by their clubs and endorsed by their trade union to play internationals.
NRL clubs see star players as ‘our IP’, even when wearing their national jerseys. As plenty of people on social media are learning, the NRL is pretty zealous about protecting what it sees as its IP these days.
All I would say in response to all this is: Sure, look across the Pacific at the big North American sports leagues. (When you do, also look at their openness to the media).
But have a look in the other direction to Europe, too, where your sport already has a longstanding presence on free-to-air TV but where it needs your help to hold down those timeslots. Look at how much more respect sports get in Europe when they have an international dimension and how much regular international competition does to feed the mythology of the round-ball code.
The players may be in Nadi and Nuku’alofa, NRL, but the money’s in London and Manchester.