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The Roar

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Don't blame Latrell for picking the Koori Knockout over the Kangaroos - ask why the Roos brand is so devalued

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Editor
5th October, 2023
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If you follow Steve Mascord on social media – and if you love rugby league and don’t, you’re missing out – then you might have noticed one of his characteristic posts this week.

It was an intervention around Latrell Mitchell’s injury-enforced absence from the Kangaroos squad, a move from which he has been criticised given that he also played in the Koori Knockout over the weekend without apparent issue in his injured finger.

“Is this the time to remind everyone players used to have to front up to a medical if they were picked for rep duty and only the team doctor could rule them out?” wrote the legendary league scribe.

“Yes, even if it meant a wasted plane ticket. Dale Shearer once bluffed his way onto a plane despite not being picked!

“Also telling that back in the day we had Wayne Pearce and Wally Lewis showing up to medicals in failed desperate bids to get INTO these teams and now we have guys opting for a rest or to play in an amateur knockout or even box instead of going to the medical.”

Steve might have stopped short of blaming anyone, but plenty more would point at the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) themselves and wonder if they have devalued the Kangaroos to the level that even their own players don’t really care that much about playing for them.

Latrell was as proud a tourist as anyone last year, but he had to be convinced to get on the plane by coach Mal Meninga. Nathan Cleary, too, excelled at the World Cup, but found it easier to say no this time around with injury. 

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South Sydney, Mitchell’s club, were quick to point out that the demands on his injury from guest-starring in a friendly tournament were a little different from over a month of training and then playing in Test football. That’s correct.

It’s worth querying, much as Mascord did, how the level of value has changed. Were this seen as being as important as Origin or the NRL finals, he would have played. That’s the level the Kangaroos should be at.

For plenty of players, of course, international footy is more important than ever: it’s just that they don’t play for Australia. 

Stephen Crichton turned down a Kangaroos call-up to line up against them for Samoa. Plenty of others since 2017 have done the same for Tonga and other Pacific nations in the recent past.

The argument that representing your heritage and giving back to those that have given you so much is hard to ignore. It’s the same reason that Mitchell and so many other Indigenous stars attend the Koori Knockout.

But it’s undeniable that the green-and-gold does not have the lustre it once had, and it’s not just the players.

Many fans have lamented how difficult it has been to actually buy a replica, when once, they were the last thing one saw before getting on a plane at the airport. 

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Cameron Murray. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for RLWC)

Get out at Auckland – or Manchester, Madrid or Milan – and the first thing you will see in the duty free will be, along with the booze, perfume and cigarettes, the jersey of the local sporting pride. Not in Sydney.

There has been argument, for many years, that everyone else is the problem, with the Australian public losing interest in one-sided matches come October and November. 

But with a programme that features New Zealand and a resurgent Samoa, both of whom gave the Kangaroos great opposition 12 months ago – indeed, the World Cup semi with the Kiwis was one of the best games in years – that doesn’t really work.

30 years ago, the competition in Test football was demonstrably weaker than it is now, with the Kangaroos losing four matches in the entire 1980s and winning 90% of matches from 1980 through to the Super League War.

On top of that, they can play more games against a greater variety of nations, rather than the two that they played for almost all of the 1980s and 1990s outwith the 1995 World Cup.

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Yet the brand of the Kangaroos is lower than it has ever been. Where once they were rugby league’s equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters or All Blacks – when they thrashed everyone in 1982, attendances actually rose – now they barely get on the field.

They haven’t played Great Britain or England at all since 2017 and have abandoned their stronghold in Sydney entirely, with just three games in the last 15 years in the Harbour City.

Much as many don’t like any sniff of Sydney bias, it is undeniable that the bulk of Australia’s rugby league media lives in Sydney. 

Reputationally, a succession of short-term, sensible decisions to move games to Townsville, Melbourne, Wollongong, Perth and Canberra have seen Sydney removed as an international venue, with a cumulative effect that has severely weakened the brand.

Remember: no game in Sydney means no training in Sydney, which means no media opps: this week, the Kangaroos are in Airlie Beach, close to Townsville where very few journalists will be there to cover them, meaning the build-up will be much more limited. 

If you want to build hype, then it helps to be close to where all the media are. The Kangaroos have played more games in Leeds in that time than in the world’s biggest rugby league market.

Again, this isn’t always the fault of the ARLC: the Queensland and Victorian governments have paid good money for international games, including the upcoming Tests, to be played in their states. 

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 09: (L-R) Australian "Team of the Century" members Andrew Johns, Wally Lewis and John Raper talk prior to the ARL Centenary Test match between the Australian Kangaroos and the New Zealand Kiwis at the Sydney Cricket Ground on May 9, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Australian “Team of the Century” members Andrew Johns, Wally Lewis and John Raper at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Sydney attendances have long been an issue, with 21,000 and 25,000 at the last two Tests. It might have been a different proposition for Australia v Samoa at Commbank Stadium in Parramatta, given the size of Western Sydney’s Samoan community, but that’s a risk and Queensland came with the cash to mitigate it.

Dollars from the state governments is likely to cover the costs and turn a profit before attendances even enter into the discussion, and Destination NSW, the local tourist body, was unlikely to stump up to host games largely attended by people who already live in NSW.

The World Club Challenge, which brought 1,000 fans over from the UK, probably looks like the better use of their funds, or attempting to draw thousands of out-of-town and out-of-state soccer fans for the A-League Grand Final.

Rugby league in Sydney is booming, however, and it might be worth the ARLC’s time wondering why they can’t sell out Kangaroos fixtures without government backing. 

Given the talent on display and the potential for excellent footy, a venue like CommBank, if not even the larger Allianz or Accor Stadiums, should be well within reach.

The CBA farrago didn’t help, either. With games announced relatively late in the year, fans were unable to plan for fixtures and, crucially, neither were players.

New Zealand lost key figures due to injury (inevitable), but also pre-arranged marriages, with Scott Sorensen, then attending other people’s weddings, like Kodi Nikorima, who will be at his brother’s nuptials as best man. 

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One suspects that, had they known when games were played, they would have rescheduled for dates that didn’t clash.

We’re now a step away from what Gaelic football fans are used to, where players can be listed as injured, but also simply ‘Australia’, if they’ve moved here for a year, or ‘work’, if they had a more pressing professional engagement than the the last bastion of elite amateur sport.

Even as a hard-nosed international footy head, it’s hard to argue with blokes who get battered every week from pillar to post each week wanting a bit of time to themselves, and indeed, doing a little to re-right the work/life balance that they are forced to heavily distort between February and October. 

It’s not for nothing that every player thanks their families for the sacrifices made right between God and the boys in their acceptance speeches.

It’s even harder to do so the year after a World Cup on the other side of the world, where the likes of Sorensen spent six weeks this time last year. 

The withdrawals can become a cycle, too. Latrell doesn’t play, which makes the Pacific Championships look worse, and then Joseph Suaalii, Jarome Luai, Shaun Johnson and Jason Taumalolo don’t play either, which only devalues it further.

Were Kangaroos games on a par with Origin – as they once were – then doubtless the vast majority of call-offs would be busting a gut, as Wayne Pearce and Wally Lewis once did, but make the squad. Now, it’s a lot easier to stay home. 

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