Last Saturday’s crowd at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch of 8875 for an international rugby league doubleheader was, sure, disappointing.
But to suggest, as someone did on social media, that it was evidence “international rugby league is a million miles for where it needs to be”, was completely wrong-headed.
A week before, as highlighted in last week’s column, Australia lost to a new opponent for the first time since 1951.
International rugby league has never, ever, been in a better position.
Firstly, let’s consider the Kiwis. It’s unfair to call the 2017 New Zealand side the worst in the country’s history – they were all highly regarded full-time professionals – but they were the most underperforming for sure.
Just having enough competitive national sides for the Kiwis to miss the World Cup semi-finals is an impressive performance for the sport as a whole and an illustration of the point I make above – we’ve never been in a better position.
But from afar, it’s probably difficult to comprehend how uninterested the New Zealand public has been in the Kiwis since 2017 (and before that, when they were red hot, they almost never played at home).
At the end of last year, just 12,763 attended a New Zealand versus Australia game at Mt Smart, which was preceded by a women’s Test and a junior Test between the same countries.
A week later, two allegedly neutral countries – Australia and Tonga – sold the same venue out.
I was at both Anglo-New Zealand Tests over the past two weekends and I’ll tell you there were more Kiwi fans in Christchurch than there were in Auckland the previous Saturday. Great Britain fans outnumbered those identifiable as Kiwi supporters at Eden Park.
Auckland is also far more of a rugby league city than Christchurch; we watch the Warriors on TV and forget what a second-class sport league is in the majority of rugby union-obsessed New Zealand.
The Kiwis have only been asked to stand on their own two feet as a box office attraction at home twice since the World Cup flop and they are slowly rebuilding their brand. The sort of football they played at the weekend will continue the process.
Overall, it was an encouraging evening for the NZRL.
As for the general state of international rugby league, the poor showing online so far by the Lions is but a blip.
The next World Cup attracted £25 million in funding from the UK government, we have an Oceania Cup, the Americas Rugby League Championship, a Middle East Africa Cup, and a European Championship. There is a World Cup of Nines, a mid-season international weekend and professional players suiting up regularly for developing countries.
These things have been mere dreams for most of my life as a rugby league fan and expansionist.
For Christ’s sake, Sonny Bill Williams has just signed for a club in Toronto!
You just can’t please some people, right? It technically is a million miles from where it needs to be – but it’s also a million miles from where it was.