Round 23 NRL gets underway with an intriguing Thursday night match up between old rivals Parramatta and Canterbury.
For rugby league trainspotters like you and I, this is the most exciting weekend of the season.
Even that mainstream behemoth, Origin, has an off-kilter angle this Sunday given that it is being held in the home of the mighty Western Reds!
Now we just need a Sangropers Origin team and the return of our game as a going concern in the Apple Isle!
New Zealand vs Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night threatens to match Origin for passion and cultural significance – this is a genuinely lucrative new property for our sport.
We may one day look back on the year we tentatively scheduled only one of these matches the way we look back on the experimental early Origin matches from 1980.
The new Oceania Cup kicks off with two matches on Saturday night, the other being Papua New Guinea vs Samoa at Leichhardt Oval. The series concludes with more games at the end of the year; the Auckland tie is in Group A and the Sydney game is Group B.
It’s important to understand this because the matches have a different significance if you are looking at them from the point of view of the NRL or the RLIF.
The NRL are running the so-called “Pacific Invitational” at Leichhardt Oval, which also includes a Lebanon vs Fiji game, as they do each year.
The New Zealand-Tonga game is being run by the Duco Events, who have been engaged by the New Zealand Rugby League. They’re the guys who held the NRL Auckland Nines.
Duco are are also administering the Great Britain Tour matches in New Zealand at the end of the year (but not the ones in Papua New Guinea as far as I can tell).
This is why NZ-Tonga tickets are being sold, and the match us being promoted, under the banner GB Oceania Tour.
There is also a website and social media accounts in that name.
So from the NRL perspective both matches at Leichhardt are equal but actually, one is part of a wider competition and one is not.
Robbie Farah’s concerns about the likes of Mitchel Moses , Adam Doueihi and Alex Twal withdrawing uninjured are completely valid.
It’s wrong that some countries are treated differently, that a club can pressure a player to withdraw from an international or a player can avoid attending a medical if he doesn’t feel like playing.
But the decisions of Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita and the other Tongans in 2017, and now Marty Taupau and Jamayne Isaako to switch to Samoa for this weekend, come from an organic place – a critical mass has been reached.
They are a reflection of how much rugby league has come to mean to Tongans and Samoans.
The fact that Lebanese and Italian players probably aren’t at the point of making the same sacrifices just means the game isn’t there in those territories yet. The same emotions aren’t yet being stirred.
On Friday at Ringrose Park, there will be a game of objectively more importance than even the Oceania Cup matches.
A World Cup berth will go some way towards being determined with the Cook Islands and South Africa playing off for the right to meet the United States in Jacksonville in November.
Yet this game is almost invisible, even to Sydneysiders.
That’s because money talks. The NRL puts up the money for the Pacific Double Header, the NZRL and Duco put up the money for the Oceania Cup and GB Tour and the RLIF has to cobble together the expenses the WCQ.
Money determines how good the players are in each games as well as how much publicity they get. Not fair – but a fact of life.
Things are finally moving in international rugby league but there are still any number of inequalities like this. And there will be for some time yet.
Before I go, a word about the future structure of British Rugby League.
Reports abound about an extended “Rugby League Premiership” as soon as next year, involving the big-city expansion teams and most of the current Championship sides.
If that happens, the RLP will need a commercial arm like Super League. I don’t think the Rugby Football League can make such a competition realise its potential.