In a somewhat contentious move, last week the AFL again scheduled a bye weekend in the lead up to the finals.
While the teams competing would be grateful for the rest period, by having this ‘rest week’, the AFL risks scuttling some of the momentum gained at the business end of the regular season and so the challenge becomes to keep the game in the media and front of mind for fans.
The AFL worked valiantly to manage the bye period with a number of initiatives (some were embraced more than others). One that stood out for me was the naming of the All Australian Team.
The All Australian Team, which is a complete team including an interchange was named as a 40-man squad early on in the week and then later in the week reduced to 22 men in a prestigious ceremony allowing for maximum coverage and exposure for the code so it could celebrate its best Australian players for 2019.
The concept was an absolute winner on that front with the usual conjecture and debate about who was selected and who was omitted.
It generated the kind of conversation around any representative team selection that fans enjoy engaging with and kept the code in the headlines during a crowded time of year.
There is only one issue with the All Australian team; the team is only ceremonial due to the AFL being almost exclusively Australian so there is no reasonable competition around the world to test themselves against.
The code has tried in the past to implement a playing element to selection of this team. Some of you may recall a game against Ireland in the International Rules hybrid game. But that game has been shelved.
As a rugby league fan and as an unashamed internalist, this is where I think rugby league has an opportunity to develop a concept like this and take it to the next level.
In the throes of a busy NRL season which now includes the NRLW, State of Origin and mid-season internationals, the Kangaroos and Jillaroos can sometimes become almost invisible. Because of concerns around heavy player workload, when it comes to the Kangaroos, they are playing less than ever so there is a chance that the Australian jersey becomes devalued.
But, if we introduced some sort of ceremony and commemoration around the men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams (especially as rugby league pushes to become one of the most inclusive sports in the world), the NRL takes an opportunity to make sure that none of the honour and tradition of past teams is lost on current teams.
In the formative years of rugby league in this country, international competition was a huge part of what made the game appealing and popular.
Stories of players keeping fit by shovelling coal in the sweaty holds of steamer ships while they travelled to far off lands to test themselves against the Northern Union or young men putting promising careers on hold to fight for their country brought new meaning to the green and gold.
True legends of the game have been lauded in the past for their on-field performances when playing for their country and in fact, all of the current immortals did incredible things on the international stage.
The international game grows every year with more countries than ever playing the game and serious contenders to the big three slowly rising up out of the Pacific nations. The NRL can no longer ignore the passion and momentum these games generate and is now scheduling annual meaningful fixtures that do feature the Kangaroos.
If international rugby league wants to go to the next level, the Australian sides which are both reigning World Champions need to be at the forefront.
In recent seasons, international rugby league has had some big moments that increase the legitimacy and build the passion for respective nations, like the tears pouring down Benji Marshall’s cheeks as the New Zealand National anthem played after his recent recall and the Tongan crowd filling Mt Smart with beautiful song.
Players now want to play for their home nations with high profile defections of players like Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, even though it came at a personal cost to them.
Australian rugby league is yet to have a recent passion filled headline like this in the men’s game, and while it can’t be manufactured and needs to grow organically, commemorating the team announcement will go a long way towards this.
Some may argue that the NRL already has the Dally M team of the year. But this is also a ceremonial team and is available to players from all countries. So the naming of the Australian teams (and hopefully all other international teams, by their respective Governing bodies) can be another storied event.
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald has stated that he strives hard to make sure all of the current squad members understand and acknowledge the efforts of previous players and pioneers of the female game here in Australia, while Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has publicly called out his players to lift the passion for the jersey.
Ex-players have expressed doubts about whether a modern player would ever replicate his mammoth efforts in Kangaroos tours with a giant cast on their arm if given the opportunity.
A good place to start would be to implement something like the All Australian Ceremony, surround the players with past legends and thrust the conversation into the league spotlight before we see these wonderful teams play and create another chapter in the story of Australian rugby league.