Yes, you heard me: international rugby league is not the priority right now. And nor should it be.
Keeping the National Rugby League going is the priority and it can’t be jeopardised for a branch of the game that has, for all intents and purposes, been a side show for at least two decades now.
I find the idea of people getting worked up about the Australian and New Zealand teams pulling out of this year’s Rugby League World Cup in Great Britain very odd.
It is second only in terms of being odd behind there actually being a World Cup in a sport where – for the last two decades – there has only been two consistently competitive teams.
I used to love the Kangaroo Tours and the Tests against Great Britain. The 1990 series in particular was exciting and a genuine contest. I’ve rarely been as excited as I was watching Ricky Stuart’s run in 1990.
However, it has been a long time since those halcyon days of international rugby league.
Only in Aussie rules, Gaelic football, gridiron and baseball can there be said to be weaker arguments for a World Cup being held.
The stats speak for themselves.
Since 2000, the Kiwis have played 59 Test matches against sides other than Australia. They have failed to win just 14 of those.
Six of those losses were to Great Britain, who don’t play at World Cups; six were to England, who it must be said can occasionally put up a decent side; and rounded out with a loss to Tonga and a draw with Scotland.
They haven’t exactly been challenged.
Except by Australia, of course.
The Kangaroos’ record since 2000 features 82 victories: nine losses and a draw to New Zealand; three losses to Great Britain, and one loss to Tonga.
So, the only other sides that are vaguely competitive are England sometimes and Great Britain – who haven’t even played Australia since 2006.
France, once a strong league nation, have not beaten Australia since 1978. They haven’t beaten New Zealand since 1980. Their national team would struggle to make the NRL top eight.
Yes, I hear you screaming that Tonga are really quite good right now.
Agreed, they are.
However, how long will that last?
While they beat Australia in 2019, that was an invitational side due to an impasse between the Tongan Rugby League and the players. Not exactly the basis for a successful era right there…
So if we want to see competitive international rugby league played, at best we can hold at tri-series between Australia, New Zealand and England.
There is not even vaguely enough cattle to justify running a full blown ‘World Cup’.
Now, put that reality of a lopsided competition against the back drop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mountains that have had to have been moved – and continued to be moved – to keep the National Rugby League going over the last two seasons.
Given that situation, how anyone can justify putting the elite players of the NRL on recirculated-air-infection-tubes for 24 hours to send them to a country that has just lifted all social interaction restrictions and is riddled with COVID, to play in a competition that has – at best – marginal credibility, is beyond me.
Lots of people whom I hold in the highest esteem are on that bandwagon.
They love international rugby league and want to grow it. They want to spread the gospel of our game and convert more countries to the cause. I admire that and I admire them for trying.
However, as I’ve raised numerous times before, the reality is that the NRL is a closed shop.
It is an operation that runs the game for the purpose of selling an entertainment product to broadcasters for big money.
That operation has three primary products: the NRL home-and-away season, where they have undertaken to most weekends provide the broadcasters with eight games; the NRL finals series, that will provide 11 (hopefully) high-quality games – culminating in the very high-rating grand final; and the jewel in the crown: Origin.
The yearly three-game contest between New South Wales and Queensland rates through the roof and is an absolute cash cow.
Not only do people watch it on the television in massive numbers, it puts bums on seats at the stadiums, too, even with high ticket prices.
Pre-COVID, the Origin games regularly saw over 80,000 people attend in person. Those numbers held firm through the Maroons’ 11 seasons of utter domination. It is a rusted-on crowd.
Conversely, the last international match held in Australia that had a crowd over 40,000 was the 6-0 win in Brisbane by Australia over England in the World Cup final in December, 2017.
The organisers chose to hold the final in a stadium with a capacity of 52,500 – and they didn’t even fill it. The official crowd number was 40,033.
The reality is that international games just don’t pull the big crowds, at the ground or on the couch.
If they did, you can be certain that the NRL would be doing their utmost to make every cent they could out of them.
However, since 2000 there have been 42 Kangaroos matches played in Australia. Only ten of those games were played in Sydney. A further ten have been played in Brisbane.
So, 22 of the Kangaroo games have been played outside of the major stadia or outside of the Australian rugby league heartland.
Wollongong, Newcastle, Canberra and Townsville have all hosted games under the guise of taking the game out into the regions.
However, in reality, they are being taken to grounds that better suit the anticipated low crowd numbers.
Further, all of the players are desperate to play State of Origin.
Not only does it provide the most prominent stage on which to strut their stuff, and through that pump up their market value, they also get paid $30,000 per match.
On those figures, Cameron Smith made $1,260,000 playing for Queensland.
A coach wouldn’t dream of trying to stop their players from taking their place with NSW or Queensland.
However, we’ve frequently seen NRL players unavailable for International games through injury and niggles. You can be sure their coaches have been quite happy with that state of affairs, if not encouraging it.
So the reality is – whether rightly or wrongly – that international rugby league is now clearly the third tier of the game.
While it is a worthy ambition to grow the game internationally, now is simply not the time.