With the first rugby league Nines World Cup only days away, anticipation has finally clicked into gear and will play out with exciting action on the field and celebration in the stands of Bankwest Stadium in Sydney’s west.
It’s unsurprising that early ticket sales have been sluggish. We are at the end of a long NRL season. The event is being staged in Sydney and we know that residents of the Harbour City don’t like going out for much at all.
In fact, you could give sideline seats made of fairy floss and surround the field with a moat of cold, free beer and many patrons would still prefer to sit at home and watch it on the box (or go but complain about the cost of tickets).
All codes in Sydney consistently struggle with this problem. The Sydney Swans are the only exception as they are able to reproduce Melbourne sports culture in Sydney.
Destination NSW have put real money towards making the Nines a reality and hopefully both the NRL and the RLIF are able to repay that investment and turn this into a memorable event for both rugby league and the state of NSW.
The mere fact that the tournament stars names like Kalyn Ponga, Maika Sivo and Shaun Johnson for the men’s and female stars such as Jess Sergis, Honey Hireme and Amy Hardcastle is reason alone to get excited and we all know that the international game could use an event like this to kick start its season.
International Rugby League has once again had to navigate through a range of unique and exasperating issues in the lead-up to this tournament, most notably the tensions between the high-profile playing groups and the controlling bodies of nations like Lebanon and Tonga.
Because of those issues, the Lebanon squad for this weekend will not contain a raft of NRL talent and the widely reported on Tonga situation has only come to a temporary solution after intervention from the highest office in the land.
The reality is that while highly professional players lift the profile and can boost funding of minnow nations, sometimes the very amateur and mostly volunteer administrations are ill-equipped to handle this and the RLIF needs to work out quickly how to balance these two conflicting realities, especially as we are on the verge of the international game’s most exciting season yet.
The Nines version of rugby league has had some limited success globally in its infancy with notable competitions in London, Auckland and North Carolina, yet most of these events are independently run and seem disconnected from the wider game up until now. With both the endorsement of the NRL and the RLIF and serious investment behind it, this event has the right ingredients to be a success.
With the way people play and consume sport all around the globe and with almost every major sport seeking to produce shorter, more dynamic, viewer-friendly content, rugby league can’t afford to be left behind.
If we have learnt anything from rugby union and their highly successful sevens competition, it’s that global cities are happy to pay real money for dynamic and engaging events. If this Nines concept works well it could be a great event to produce revenue and take rugby league to new audiences.
Bring on the weekend.