The staging of the Denver Test match between England and New Zealand on June 23 has brought to light many questions about the place of international rugby league in the game, and its future.
What value does international rugby league have to the game overall? What is the best way to promote the game internationally and capture the attention of new markets? And most importantly, what is the role of Australia in the promotion of international rugby league?
With the 2025 World Cup in North America fast approaching, these questions desperately need answers, as momentum gained from the highly successful 2017 edition stalls.
That’s not to say international rugby league has totally stalled. Besides the Denver Test between England and NZ, a Pacific double-header is scheduled for the same weekend pitting Fiji against Papua New Guinea and Tonga against Samoa.
There are also plenty of games scheduled for the conclusion of both the Super League and NRL seasons. France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will fight it out in a 2021 World Cup qualifying pool, whilst New Zealand will tour Europe and play a 3-match series against England. Australia and New Zealand will also contest the annual Anzac Test match, although at this stage, that appears to be the only time we will see the reigning World Champions in action this season.
A historic reluctance
The Kangaroos have always been reluctant to play matches in the year either before or after world cups. In the year before the 2008 World Cup, they only played 2 matches – one mid-season and one post-season, both against NZ. The same year, NZ embarked on a tour of Europe. The exact same thing happened in 2012, the year before the 2013 World Cup.
Australia also famously pulled out of a planned GB Lions Tour in 2015 due to player burnout. Yet New Zealand and England players, after equally long domestic seasons, could muster the strength to play each other in a 3-match series that year.
It would appear as if the Australians are viewing this year in the same light as 2007, 2012 and 2015 – a gap year, for lack of a better term.
Imagine the All Blacks deciding to have a gap year.
There is no lack of opposition for the Australians to play against. 2017 World Cup semi-finalists Tonga and Fiji, and quarter-finalists Samoa are all without international fixtures for the end of the year.
Why is Australia so reluctant to play test matches?
It’s possible that Australia views itself as somewhat separate to the rest of the rugby league world. Australia has introduced many rule changes over the years without consulting the English Rugby Football League (RFL) or the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), such as the 40/20, the zero tackle rule, and the reduction of the interchange.
Is there a need for the Australian game to look internationally?
If not separate, then perhaps self-sufficient. After all, the NRL and State of Origin are domestic giants. With the NRL Grand Final and the 3 State of Origin games regularly ranking as 4 of the top 5 TV programs annually (the other being the AFL Grand Final), there is reason to argue that Australia’s attitude towards international rugby league stems from the fact that rugby league in Australia does not need the international game in order to survive – at least in the short-medium term.
This attitude is not just present within the organization of Australian Rugby League, but seemingly amongst fans and the media as well. At World Cup and Four Nations time, negative views about the international game dominate Australian rugby league community.
These views include everything from incessant criticism of the admittedly relatively loose eligibility rules, to refusing to watch tournaments because “only Australia can win”. They can be found all over websites like The Roar, Zero Tackle, the League Unlimited Forums, and even in the Daily Telegraph.
Whether these kinds of views are justified is debatable. What is not up for debate is that if large sections of the Australian rugby league community (fans, the media and most importantly, administrators) hold these views, the game will struggle to grow internationally beyond its current foothold.
These views manifest themselves through Australia not taking the international game seriously. By treating it as an afterthought. By taking regular “gap-years”.
The American dream
Due to the size of the American market, the sheer amount of elite athletes and the nation’s appetite for contact sport, it is frankly naïve and short-sighted of the NRL and ARLC not to support ventures such as the Denver test match.
All signs point towards the Denver test match going ahead. And it’s fine to have NZ and England selling rugby league to America. They are both great teams, and will provide the locals with a fine spectacle.
But imagine how much bigger it would be if Australia was involved. Imagine Australia vs Tonga or Samoa, in places like Hawaii, California, Utah or any other state with a large amount of Pacific Islanders.
With the 2025 World Cup being staged in the US and Canada, more like the above needs to be done in order to build something of a profile for the game in time for the World Cup. Without heavy involvement from the Kangaroos (which is the closest thing rugby league has to the All Blacks in terms of both dominance and brand), rugby league is not giving itself the best chance to sell itself to North America.
Ultimately, it will come down to whether Australia has the desire to spread the game, or if Australia is content with the domestic giant status of the NRL and State of Origin.
Does the Australian national rugby league team have a responsibility to grow the game internationally? Let us know in the comments below.