By Robert Morrissey
Every four years it feels like we finally get some international rugby league of note: the World Cup. If it wasn’t for the tournament it’s doubtful how many international games would actually be played.
Indeed, we have the Four Nations, but really it’s just a bit boring in comparison. It’s just a combination of England, Australia, and New Zealand playing each other, with the occasional Pacific nation or Wales thrown in.
It’s repetitive and it’s stale. In reality, the England development team, the England Knights, have more exciting and expansive games than the England first team.
The World Cup is the one event on the rugby calendar where rugby league fans are treated to exciting, rare, and unpredictable games. When else would you get Lebanon vs Jamaica in any international competition?
Alas, the excitement and enthusiasm to see some great and frankly random rugby league has been ripped away from us by the self-serving decision-making of the Australians, New Zealanders, and National Rugby League.
It is not just a sporting and competition issue, it’s much greater than that for British rugby league. It was not just the success of rugby league which was at stake at this World Cup: it was its very survival.
Rugby league has never been a particularly affluent sport. It has always massively dragged behind football, rugby union, and cricket in terms of financial power and security. Hence, rugby league is the British sport which has suffered most from the pandemic, illustrated by the government’s sixteen million pound loan to the Rugby Football League.
The World Cup was therefore a massive opportunity to start the recovery from Covid-19. To get eyes on the sport, and on a fun and exciting sport at that. To create new fans, recapture old ones, and get investment into the game. That chance has all but likely gone.
Yes, this isn’t the cancellation of the World Cup, however, it might as well be. With it being postponed until next year it will either have to compete with the Football World Cup or be played during the domestic season, messing with both the Super League and NRL seasons.
Neither of these are good options as they both lose the momentum that the World Cup had gained. This was seen as potentially the only lifeline that the domestic game in Britain had to secure itself.
The repercussion for both the women’s and wheelchair games are an even more tragic consequence of the postponement. With the women’s game on the verge of professionalism, the exposure of the World Cup and relative equal standing with the men was seen as the chance to propel the sport, but that seems a long way off now.
For almost the first time ever the wheelchair World Cup was set to be televised and in the same competition and organisation as the 13s. However, once again the momentum has been damaged and the question has to be asked as to whether it will have the same impact next year with British sport back to full power.
So who does the blame lie with? It is hard to look past the self-interest of both Australia and New Zealand for the cancellation and its repercussions on the sport.
After citing the Covid-19 rate in Britain as the decision to pull out of the competition, it seems on the surface a safety decision. However, the motivations behind this must be questioned.
If it was directed by the governments, then the Australian men’s rugby union team would not be coming to England in October when the World Cup was meant to be. The New Zealand cricket team would not have gone to Bangladesh and neither nation would have sent athletes to the Olympics.
These decisions were in the interests of the NRL clubs who did not want their players competing in Britain before the domestic season due to the isolation rules.
It was not a decision for player or staff safety; it was one out of self-interest by the NRL clubs and their puppets in the Australian and New Zealand Rugby League. Even the players themselves wanted to play.
So where do we go from here? The postponement could actually offer an opportunity to establish international rugby league without needing Australia or New Zealand. This autumn the RFL should consider having an invitational tournament, potentially a mix of test games and nines (the rugby league equivalent of rugby sevens) to draw the crowds in.
We cannot let this defeat us and the dream of a stable domestic and international game. British rugby league needs to prove its independence and its ability to thrive without New Zealand and Australia. We need to have a bit of imagination and strength to secure the men’s game, professionalise the women’s and build up the wheelchair game. We can do it, and crucially we must.
Image by Sum_of_Marc via Creative Commons