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Opinion

Has international rugby league finally turned a corner?

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Expert
4th February, 2020
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2019 was a watershed year for international rugby league, with more coverage than ever before.

The Papua New Guinea Orchids registered their first ever international win, defeating England, the teams for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup were decided, and there was an international nines tournament in Sydney featuring teams from all across the globe.

Then, of course, there was that moment in November when Tonga beat the reigning world champions, Australia.

For many of us who love international rugby league, this victory was a moment to remember.

As a proud Australian, I love to see our teams succeed on the world stage, but the Kangaroos have been too dominant for too long. For the international game to grow, the Aussies need strong opposition and Tonga have shown they are up for the challenge.

Jason Tauamlolo running with Tonga.

Jason Taumalolo for Tonga (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The most positive part of this wave of success is that the momentum has continued into 2020.

Many claim that the Rugby League World Cup is simply a poor cousin to much larger international sporting events like the FIFA and Rugby World Cups (both male and female). But the 2021 edition, which will be played in the United Kingdom, received a major boost last month with Prince Harry announcing the draw from Buckingham Palace.

I don’t care about your politics or your position on #Megxit – this meant global publicity for our game. Given the media attention that follows Harry wherever he goes, people across the world were watching the announcement and talking about rugby league.

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No doubt the organising committee will look to harness that attention as the build-up continues.

Super League also started last week and I have never seen more interest in this competition from Aussies than this year. No doubt this is the result of some high-profile signings over the off-season.

The first was the Toronto Wolfpack landing Sonny Bill Williams on a two-year deal reportedly worth $10 million dollars. This is the club’s first season in the Super League after being promoted and this signing has meant interest in the Canadian franchise is at an all-time high.

While many criticised his performance against Castleford on the weekend, over 19,000 people attended the fixture – significantly more than any other game. I’m guessing that was partly due to Williams.

After the match, he took countless photos with fans; the Leeds Rhinos women’s team even took the opportunity to get a snap with the superstar.

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For Toronto, the Williams signing is an investment and it will no doubt ensure plenty of eyes on the club.

The other high-profile signing was Israel Folau, for the Catalans Dragons.

I’m not interested in having a conversation about Folau and his politics, but in this case the saying is true – there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The signing generated plenty of conversation and even a cheeky slap from the Wigan Warriors, who made their politics known when they announced their home game against the Dragons will be themed as a pride game.

Williams and Folau are both international superstars and have had an immediate impact. The Wolfpack are featuring in nightly news segments back in Canada.

This would not have happened a year ago.

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Aussie interest in the Super League has also been boosted as a result of the Canberra Raiders’ success, with English players including Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman leading people to be more interested in the teams they have come from.

Additionally, there are several Aussies (as always) making an impact in the Super League, such as Bevan French and Aidan Sezer.

Aiden Sezer

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The transfer of players has never been easier either. Just this week it was announced by the Canterbury Bulldogs that St Helens prop Luke Thompson would join the squad from 2021.

This is also happening in the women’s game.

The 2019 Woman of Steel, Courtney Hill from Leeds, will play for the Sydney Roosters in the upcoming Nines tournament, and Charlotte Booth has recently moved to Australia and will be pushing to feature in the 2020 women’s premiership.

The women’s game has been a source of continued growth for rugby league in the last couple of years. Now the opportunity that exists in the international game is also being realised.