When you take a look at the state of international rugby league, it feels like trying to water new plants with a hose that’s a metre too short. If only there was a bit more help, it would grow.
Last weekend’s representative round showed us that the game has come a long way and interest has never been higher, yet some of the controversies surrounding the lead-up to the matches were a massive neon sign indicating that we’re not there yet.
The amount of NRL talent withdrawing from teams before the weekend was disappointing, particularly as some of them were for mysterious ‘niggles’, many of which were miraculously healed by the next NRL round.
It dredged up repressed memories of the now-extinct City vs Country fixture and last year’s international clash between England and New Zealand, which was played in Denver, Colorado.
NRL clubs have a deep scepticism for anything that doesn’t directly correlate to their premiership hopes, only making a brief appearance at the big table to ask for more funds off the governing body.
So when a game threatens to take their prized assets – players – out of action for a week, and possibly a lot longer if they become injured, the clubs push back. They withdraw players on shady grounds and draw on favours from sportswriters to question the timing and validity of the game.
Even though I strongly disagree with this course of action – especially when the silence over players being selected for State of Origin is deafening, because let’s face it, the money does the talking there – I understand where they are coming from.
Clubs pay the wages of the players and if they get hurt it can do irreparable damage to their premiership aspirations. So even though the club view is myopic, I sympathise with their position.
With that in mind, it should come down to the NRL itself to compel the clubs to get on board with the game’s international aspirations. After all, it was the NRL along with the broadcasters who made the representative round a reality.
If the NRL is going to step up to the plate as far as a representative round is concerned, it might as well swing for the fence. You only have to divert your attention towards Docklands to see the sort of bullish pointed defence that the representative round needs.
The AFL’s sojourn into China is now in its third year with very mixed reviews, yet out of AFL house you will never hear anything but an eternal pledge of support that we haven’t heard in rugby league since the final days of our last prime minister’s tenure.
Even though the China fixture is the brainchild of Port Adelaide, the AFL is firmly on board. The game is said to break even and push the product into a new market. As far as Gill McLachlan and co are concerned, it’s a win-win, so when inevitable criticism came from clubs and influential figures such as Jeff Kennett, last year McLachlan and Port Adelaide pushed back.
This year, when dubious crowd figures were questioned, McLachlan sighted everything from patrons hiding in marquees behind the stadium to buses heading to the wrong venue. McLachlan did anything he could to show the game was nothing short of a raging success.
If rugby league’s international test in Denver this time last year had one tenth of that kind of outward and vocal support – for a fixture that had more than twice the attendance of the AFL game in Shanghai – we could be telling a vastly different story about the future of the game in the US in a few years time.
But it wasn’t to be.
The NRL needs to draw from that experience and stop trying to let clubs and their media contacts railroad international fixtures. The NRL needs to call out clubs on dubious player withdrawals.
The international game will never be taken seriously when a club in Kogarah can cast doubt over a fixture in Denver.
The NRL must also demand that if national administrations such as Lebanon want to be part of NRL-funded fixtures, their house needs to be in order. The international game is growing and the fact that we have a round mid-season full of exciting passion filled fixtures is a credit to the players, the fans and the quality of the matches themselves.
The international game is something that needs to be stewarded well and fiercely guarded because we can’t let it be another example of what could have been in this code’s chequered history.