It has been the overused catch-cry of the Rugby League Twitterati of late that the game is dead or, at the very least, breathing its last. It is typically nothing more than a look-at-me moan that shows little understanding of the sport’s history in either Australia or the UK.
There is one element of the game, though, that is very much at a crossroads following Australia and New Zealand’s decision to pull out of the Rugby League World Cup later this year, for this is the culmination of a long-held disinterest-bordering-on-contempt Australian rugby league has held for the international game. What could have been a watershed week for international rugby league with the announcement that the 2032 Olympics would be held in the league heartland of Brisbane has turned into another unnecessary self-inflicted drama.
One of the great tropes that those who deride rugby league retreat to is that the game lacks a true international presence. While there has certainly been sporadic jabs at those knocks – most recently, the rise and rise of Tonga following the last World Cup and the Toronto Wolfpack experiment – the game has essentially been contained to its traditional heartlands.
The news that Brisbane will host the 2032 Games should have been viewed by the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and the rugby league world as a major opportunity to take the game to the world. Brisbane is the world capital of rugby league, but the decision to castrate the World Cup shows just how blinkered powerbrokers in the game are and just how little care they have for opening the game to the world.
Australia and New Zealand – the only nations to lift the World Cup since 1972 – announced on Thursday that they would not be participating in this year’s tournament based on “safety, health and wellbeing” concerns. It is the flashpoint of a cold war between southern hemisphere powerbrokers who did not want the World Cup to proceed as scheduled this year and UK organisers who were steadfast that the show must go on.
The NRL and Australian clubs have essentially held the international game to ransom and when the International Rugby League did not accede to requests to delay the tournament, they pulled the trigger and implemented the nuclear option.
Under the cover of Covid, the ARLC and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) are refusing to send teams to what should be the jewel in the Rugby League crown, robbing the tournament of its biggest names and its two most successful nations. It is a weak justification for such a monumental move that has the real potential to end international rugby league.
Covid continues to have a major impact across the world but the UK has clearly demonstrated an ability to host major sporting events. In the last month England has hosted the Euro 2020 final, Wimbledon, the Open Championship and the British Grand Prix, true international events all operated under strict health and safety protocols. There were no notable issues when it came to athlete health or safety.
When is the World Cup meant to take place?
Between 23 October and 27 November, with hosts England taking on Samoa at St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, in the opening game of the tournament. It will also feature the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events running concurrently alongside one another.
Who is involved?
In total, 16 teams had qualified for the men’s tournament. England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales represent the home nations alongside debutants such as Greece and Jamaica and established nations such as Pacific Island nations Samoa, Tonga and Fiji and, it is hoped, Australia and New Zealand. All being well, they will be split into four groups of four followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, to be held at Old Trafford. The women’s tournament sees eight teams split into two groups of four, which is also the case for the wheelchair event.
What are the venues?
A total of 18 different venues across England are due to host the men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cups. Most are in the north of the country, among them: Anfield, Headingley, the MKM Stadium in Hull and Old Trafford, which will host the women’s final as well as the men’s. The wheelchair final will take place at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool. Southern rugby league fans will have a chance to watch games at the Emirates Stadium and the Copper Box Arena, while those based in the Midlands can attend matches at Coventry’s Building Society Arena.
Why have Australia and NZ pulled out exactly?
Their respective governing bodies have cited player welfare issues related to Covid-19 as the primary reason for withdrawing. They feel that with infection rates rising in the UK, it would be unsafe for their players to travel. There are also concerns mandatory quarantine periods upon their return, which would leave the best Antipodean players unavailable for the start of the 2022 NRL season.
What happens now?
World Cup organisers must decide whether to postpone for 12 months or proceed without the two strongest international sides in the game.
What is the financial impact on rugby league in this country if the World Cup does not take place this year?
Potentially catastrophic. Rugby league has struggled more than most other sports during the pandemic, and without vital income from capacity crowds plus lucrative sponsorship and broadcast deals – it’s estimated that the World Cup will generate in excess of £10m - the sport faces a precarious future.
There is little doubt that Covid has been used as a smokescreen by powerful Australian clubs and administrators to further undermine an element they consider obtrusive and costly. International rugby league, once prized in Australia and New Zealand, now runs a distant third behind the club game and State of Origin in the southern hemisphere.
The positioning of international rugby league in the Australian pecking order is nothing new. It was trending downwards by the mid-1980s for a number of reasons – the power of NRL clubs being at the top of that list – and the gulf is widening. But even the most ardent detractor of the international game would find withdrawing from a World Cup astonishing.
While it has been cast as a health and safety matter, this is nothing more than a power play by Australian clubs wanting to ensure their players get an offseason and are ready to roll in 2021.
This was barely disguised opportunism with little consideration being given to the true long-term sustainability of the sport. Rugby league will never die – its resilience should never be understated – but it will also never be all it could be because it can never overcome self-interest and a short-term focus.
World Cup organisers are now in an awful position. Proceed without the two biggest nations and two of the biggest three draws or kowtow to Australian clubland, further compromising the international game.
Following New Zealand’s shock win at the 2008 World Cup, there have been significant opportunities to grow and foster the international game. Popularity in New Zealand soared. Pacific Tests were introduced and for the first time the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga had NRL players en masse turn out.
Tonga emerged as a powerhouse at the 2017 World Cup and went on to defeat Australia a year later. A revival of the Kangaroo Tour concept was mooted. With no strategy and a reliance on the generosity of Australian clubs though, all hope quickly gets snuffed out.
So it is again.
This is a devastating week for rugby league. The international game is now on life support. Sadly, once again, it is short-term self-interest that put it there.