England-France was an embarrassment: international rugby league could disappear unless someone actually acts

Aaron Bower
Tom Johnstone, Jack Welsby and Sam Wood

England players celebrate a try against France in the 2024 mid-season international in Toulouse

It was, in truth, the scenario everyone feared from the very beginning on Saturday evening in Toulouse.

When mid-season Test matches are curtain-raisers to second-tier domestic matches, you are only ever going to get one outcome. When clubs put their own self-interests before the broader health of the international game, you are only ever going to get one outcome.

And when the international game is treated with complete and utter contempt by the sport’s powerbrokers, well, you reap what you sow. The perception is that nobody of any significance cares about international rugby league and that has seeped through into the mindset of the rugby league public: and rightly so.

The international game has long felt like an afterthought but this was perhaps the nadir of it all. Everything about the Test match was, quite frankly an embarrassment that people of any responsibility within the game should be embarrassed about.

England’s players travelling on commercial airlines will get the interactions and the ridicule on social media, and let’s not airbrush how poor that is. But it is symptomatic of a wider problem, and actually underlined how everything about international rugby league is pretty pathetic.

When your mid-season Test matches can’t even get televised, you’ve got a pretty big problem. When your production quality is so low quality, you have a problem. We have screamed at one another for years that we need a solution. We’ve also argued back that the clubs will not make gaps in their domestic schedules because they need the money. These arguments have, quite frankly, been done to death.

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So now, it’s time for someone to step up and act. Someone to grasp the situation and try and sort it out because at the moment, the international game is wilting away into nothing, and that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for a sport that hilariously claims to have ambitions to be regarded as serious, first and foremost.

But it is just as unacceptable for people like Shaun Wane, who passionately care about the international game’s development. And for his England players, who were genuinely excited to be in camp together this week but were made to look and feel ridiculous. They all deserve so much better: as do their French counterparts.

Who is that someone that can change things? This would be the time where we collectively look to IMG, you would suggest.

Forget the Australians for a moment. We know their view on international rugby league. Perhaps we, on this side of the world, will have to accept some responsibility for things too on occasions, because we simply do not help ourselves.

How can you expect the people of Toulouse and English supporters to attend a game that is nothing more than an afterthought for the British game? We are going to have to start from the bottom, but if we don’t start, we’ll never get anywhere.

The Super League calendar simply needs reducing to accommodate a proper international break mid-season. Not one scrambled week cobbled together. A genuine three-to-four week window where a series of fixtures can be played between nations on this side of the world.

That means, basically, losing a fortnight of Super League – one home game per team. You know those clubs, determined in their own self-interest and nothing more, will plead poverty about losing a game of gate revenue: but if they can’t see the bigger picture, or find a way to plug that gap themselves, we have no hope.

Yes, I can hear you screaming that an annual Five Nations involving England, France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – that is just one example, and you could run a second-tier version alongside it including Jamaica, Italy, Malta, Serbia etc – would produce one thing: blowout scorelines, and England wins.

But again: you have to start somewhere. If nothing changes, nothing changes. The perfect illustration of that is Italy in rugby union’s Six Nations. They were routinely annihilated when they were added to the Five Nations in 2000 but seven years later, they’d finished fourth. This year, they won as many games as Scotland.

These things take time to build. But they need foundations to be laid before anything can grow. National teams need exposure to build their identity. England might win the first few years’ worth of mid-season tournaments but in time, nations like France will grow because of the exposure and platform.

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Is four weeks in the middle of every season REALLY too much to ask? Heck, if clubs want to play, they can: play their academy players and reserves so they get their home games. But allow players to represent their country and maybe, just maybe, give the game a shot at spreading its wings.

Then in time, you may well get to a point where mid-season internationals are not tucked away on a hit-and-miss streaming platform, played in front of a crowd barely touching four figures. You might get buy-in from the public. If those at the top take it seriously, the public might just follow.

IMG convincing the clubs that’s the way forward might be their biggest task of all: but done properly, international sport carries more significance than any club game. If you develop nations in the Northern Hemisphere, the other half of the world will follow.

And if Australia don’t, so what? With five or six thriving nations here, and the Pacific nations down there, you have a real thriving scene. But let’s be serious, if there’s money and interest in the international game, the Aussies will follow. Don’t kid yourself otherwise.

We’ve had the debates for years and years. It’s time to stop talking, and start acting. Otherwise, this evening of embarrassment won’t be the lowest point: the decline will continue. If you thought the players getting £250 was bad, then be warned – it could get even worse if we don’t do anything as a sport.

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