The biggest problem for England is out of their control

England dejected in World Cup semi-final against Samoa PA

It was another case of “what if” for England at the Rugby League World Cup, as they bowed out in the semi-finals at the Emirates Stadium.

In the context of the burgeoning international rugby league scene, with arguably the most realistic contenders to win the tournament for many years if not ever, the golden point defeat to Samoa was a blow.

The deflation perhaps wasn’t felt on the scale it was back in 2013, when New Zealand’s Shaun Johnson broke hearts at Wembley, though the reality of failure was certainly reflected by an emotional and dejected Shaun Wane in his post-match press conference.

The stature and profile of that tournament felt greater and more significant, maybe due to the London Olympics the previous year and the relative optimism around the licensing era of the sport, to the point where a World Cup final and possible win then might have been the catalyst for something greater.

A final this year would have had some cut through, though that opportunity now rests with the wheelchair and women sides.

The geographical challenge for England

For the men, the challenge now is how they can compete and impose themselves in the new world of international rugby league which is increasingly centred around the southern hemisphere.

Their isolation geographically is highlighted by the World Cup quarter-final line-up, where England were the only European side.

At the elite level of the international game, there are seven truly competitive nations – Australia, England, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga – with the eighth quarter-finalist, Lebanon, on the cusp.

The problem for England is that all those nations are predominantly made up of players based in the southern hemisphere, meaning the logistics for regular international matches against any of them is difficult.

England need northern hemisphere competition

England cannot find the competition they need in the northern hemisphere. The Exiles and Combined Nations concept have been thrown together to at least try and provide something, but neither have captured the imagination of the public or provided the intensity of a full international match.

Even with a presence in Super League for 17 years, France still don’t seem any closer to providing genuine competition. The next World Cup could provide France a boost, though either way it’s out of England’s hands.

The only way England can play more international rugby league of sufficient quality to grow interest and commercial value, is against the southern hemisphere nations which presents the problem.

At present, we have no idea when or where England’s next game will be.

Talks are ongoing regarding the European Championship, though England will never be anything but heavy favourites for that. Suggestions that England Knights could take England’s place in the competition if they are away on tour to ensure a regular calendar have been hampered because the other nations feel it would devalue it.

Four Nations return?

Revitalising the relatively successful Four Nations concept should be a priority, but given the southern hemisphere teams can play enough international matches at a competitive level without needing to fit around England’s schedule, or the logistics and costs of travelling, means motivation might be low.

England have hosted this World Cup and only faced two of the top eight nations – and none of their “big three” counterparts. It seems a waste to think of the costs involved in hosting all these teams for this long that that has happened.

Rugby League World Series

Sam Tomkins England
England captain Sam Tomkins in action against Papua New Guinea

Could a “World Series” type event work? So held every few years in either hemisphere, involving either six or eight nations in a round robin format with a final between the top two at the end. Games could be played over a six week period on weekends, similar to a World Cup programme, but ensures that all the games are competitive and meaningful.

So England could go up against five (or seven) of those nations above in consecutive weeks in a two-month dedicated international rugby league window.

England are going to need something like that to give them the games they need. The southern hemisphere nations can do one-off tests, England cannot find the opposition to do that, especially not mid-season, unless there is a significant change in attitude amongst the NRL and Super League clubs.

The only other way you could see England being represented, is if they are able to get enough southern hemisphere based players to form a select side – though that goes against the essence of international sport really.

While the theory is that international rugby league is key to the sport’s growth, the fact is that England are isolated by geography in a world of soaring travel costs and generating local competition is both out of their hands and at best, decades away.

More World Cup content

George Williams: Semi-final defeat will live with me until next World Cup

Mike Cooper: I’ve no doubt England will win a World Cup in the future

Lee Radford hopeful of Samoa causing an upset against Australia in World Cup final

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About James Gordon 7245 Articles
Love Rugby League editor. Founded the website back in 2005. Worked with a range of clubs and sponsors during that time. Also commentates for BBC.


  1. I think you have missed the point with this article, its not the amount and level of International games a countyr has plaed that makes them good, Australia last played an international in 2019 before this World Cup.

    The level of the NRL competition and its pathways programs is what’s at the centre of the rise in quality of the international rugby league in the southern hemisphere and especially the Pacific Nations.

    This can easily be confirmed by the number of players who struggle to make the top tier in the NRL and go to Super League and are stars, a number who have won the man of Steel award.

  2. I believe England’s loss is an indictment on Super League, The Championship & Championship 1.
    The other countries full of Northern Hemisphere players were woeful.
    Frankly I think they play too many games.
    SL clubs likely need the number of games to make money, same in Aus but the difference in quality is as big as the distance between Australia and the UK.

    • Too many games my arse!
      It ain’t so long ago that Roger Millward and others, played a whole season of top tier games. This also on top of challenge cup, Yorkshire cup, Floodlit Trophy, Representative games etc and then went to Australia and played a whole season there. They managed to fit into this International games and tours. They didn’t complain about too many games.
      The trouble is that the Aussies have changed the game to suit them. Their rules, their officials, they win.
      We can’t have touring sides because we play in summer at the same time as they play. England’s players all come from two teams plus a few others, so St bleeding Helen’s won’t want internationals cos it means they lose players for a few weeks. Despite the fact that they have 30 odd players in their first team squad.
      So, we either pick a team that truly represents super League or we put up with St Helen’s and Wigan dictating when we play internationals.
      We also need to quit bowing down to the southern hemisphere. Stand up, tell em to play by the proper rules or sod off. Dump the video calls, dump the biased and corrupt disciplinary prats, get real referees and linesmen who can see what happened and make a judgement. Stop analysing things frame by frame. Put some fire back in the game, players are frightened to tackle now cos they will get banned unless you play for the top two teams.
      Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, dump the fuckin boring national anthem, get something with a bit of gee up about it and learn a Haka type thing. That was the difference against Samoa. They were fired up and ready to fight. We stood there looking bored and thinking we beat em once we only have to turn up.
      Put some pride back. The shirt is a privilege, not a right.
      Oh, and get rid of Tomkins. He needs reminding that he’s a full back not a hooker. Plus he ain’t got the bottle to fight. He started it then fell in the floor and his behind his props. Chickenshit.

      • A shorter season = higher intensity vs a long drawn-out season where you can pace yourself.
        You’ll never get Aus to play mid-season tests because of their precious (I’m being sarcastic) State of Origin.
        Agree with aussies molding the game to suit themselves.
        Waiting for the video referee is a frustrating waste of time, give me the in-goal judges any day and I think players are being suspended for far too long especially in the SL.
        Surprised it was golden point. Should’ve played the full 10 minutes.

  3. Imagine an American Football World Cup with UK 4 home nations involved and getting hammered 100 points plus in every match, I wonder how little interest that would generate. We damage ourselves in the first place by not having a Great Britain team in the RLWC. People who think a Super League team in Glasgow or Dublin will happen are fantasists, but if a Scot, Welsh or Irish player is world class strengthen they can still play international rugby league for GB. The attendances at the RLWC were a disaster because people don’t want one sided games. This RLWC has sent Super League’s profile backwards. doubt if IMG can rescue it given that they are not genuine fans of the sport, just business for them.

  4. I think there is 5 issues.
    1) There is some predictable about super league and league is not as high quality as NRL.
    2) Quality of infrastructure in SL, for example look at Castleford & Wakefield grounds and training grounds probably not much better. The sport does not look professional with places like this, time to impose improvemetns and bring through and reward lower league sides that do.
    3) Salary Cap, with higher salary cap we can keep better players from going to NRL. Maybe even sign overseas players who are high quality and not near end of career.
    4) The article talks about lack of high quality international game but Aussies don’t play many but have state of origin.Why can’t we have Yorkshire vs Lancashire. Or the article talks about lack of European competition, the knights could probably win European championship. So why not have England play England Knights.
    5) For people who complain about too many games, barring financial benefit. What do loop fixtures bring. If fixtures limited to home and away would free up time in season for international games. Probably less injuries as less short turn around.

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