Two years ago, I decided I would travel to the United Kingdom for the Rugby League World Cup in 2021. At the start of this year, I accepted that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that that would no longer be a possibility.
But last week when it was announced that Australia and New Zealand would not be competing, it left me feeling flat.
Part of me understands the decision. The world is an uncertain place at the moment and player safety and the mental health of athletes is absolutely paramount.
But the other part of me is asking plenty of questions.
Firstly, why is the World Cup different to any other global event that has been staged since COVID? We have thousands of people in Tokyo at the moment for the Olympic Games. Wimbledon was staged in front of spectators. The Wallabies will be in the United Kingdom at the same time as the World Cup.
So why have the measures put in place not been enough for the ARLC and NZRL?
My bigger question though is if player safety and the mental health of athletes is of paramount importance, then why weren’t the players part of the decision-making process?
One of my favourite sayings is ‘nothing about us without us’ and a key feature of this current administration has been decision making without enough consultation with the most important stakeholder group: the players.
In May this year, when discussing the impacts of the rule changes, Peter V’landys acknowledged that the players should have been consulted more.
So why are we making the same mistake again?
Why not let the players make the decision for themselves as to whether they want to compete or not? To date we have heard James Tedesco and Damien Cook express a desire to represent Australia.
When the news about the withdrawal was made public, Blake Ferguson spoke about the possibility of an Indigenous All Stars team taking the place of the Kangaroos. While this won’t happen, it’s another player putting his hand up.
Some players would clearly have made the decision to go to the World Cup.
It’s also hard to accept the player safety argument when the NRL have moved heaven and earth to ensure that the last two years of competition have happened. Teams have been uprooted from their homes and the New Zealand Warriors have been living on the road almost for a year and a half.
We have a situation at the moment where families of NRL players are in hotel rooms in Queensland with gaffer tape keeping their doors closed.
State of Origin was played at the end of last year after players were exhausted from a long season. There was never any question as to whether this fixture would go ahead, yet when it comes to the international game, it seems too hard.
It also seems dismally short-sighted and signals that club interests take priority.
We talk about growing the game and increasing revenue, well internationals are an opportunity to generate interest in Australian rugby league from abroad and to develop the Kangaroos into a national brand once again.
It has not been a priority for the last four years and in a way the decision to withdraw was unsurprising.
The catch cry of this Rugby League World Cup has been inclusion. With the wheelchair, women’s and men’s tournaments all being staged in a single event for the first time and a real focus on social inclusion, it was an opportunity for us to come together as a rugby league family to help grow the game.
Now, without the two biggest nations competing, we are set to enter into an ugly stand-off to work out what happens. Will the tournament go ahead without the Kangaroos and Kiwis? Will it simply be postponed?
The decision by Australia and New Zealand will no doubt have trickle-down impacts on smaller nations. What about NRL players who are eligible to play for the likes of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji? Will the clubs will prevent these players from competing too? Ivan Cleary has already said that he does not want Jarome Luai competing.
With the joyful news that Brisbane will be hosting the 2032 Olympic Games, there has been chatter about sports that could potentially be included, with suggestions rugby league would be a great fit.
Sure it would, but for that to happen, the international game has to be given some priority.
I just don’t see it as a priority right now.