After months of waiting and uncertainty, it has finally been confirmed that England will play an autumn test series against Tonga later this year.
Tonga will become the first Pacific nation to do a sole tour, in another sign of the impact they have had on the international game in recent years.
It will be the first time that they have played England in England since a meeting at Widnes in 2006, which Tonga lost 32-14, with the only meeting since the historic World Cup semi-final in 2017.
Although it has been long been speculated, the series hasn’t been able to be confirmed due to the still ongoing wrangle over the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the NRL.
Though that still apparently hasn’t come to a final resolution yet, the appropriate bodies have now been confident enough to confirm the series will go ahead despite a late move to try and persuade Tonga to remain Down Under.
That set up the RFL to announce the three-game series – with Headingley (Leeds), Totally Wicked Stadium (St Helens) and John Smith’s Stadium (Huddersfield) the chosen venues.
Two out of three ain’t bad
Leeds is the finest rugby league theatre that we have, and it should be an automatic choice for international matches on these shores. Using St Helens is a positive too, as it is a purpose-built rugby league facility with a good mix of seating and terracing, plus it was a natural choice due to their links with Tonga coach Kristian Woolf.
But with those two locked in, the third venue should have been somewhere away from the traditional heartlands.
That’s meant as no offence to Huddersfield, which is a great venue in its own right. It is a ground shared with football, and you can only assume that the RFL have been able to negotiate a decent deal to play there.
There are a number of reasons why others may have been overlooked, and one is the timescale. With just five months between now and the series, perhaps it wasn’t possible to line up somewhere that wasn’t already within the ‘rugby league family’.
There is also the unknown. There has never been a touring test series that hasn’t featured Australia or New Zealand and so it’s not known at this stage what the attitude to ticket sales will be. The timescale plays a part in that too, with only five months to shift tickets.
Given the financial pressures the RFL are being put under by the ongoing legal challenge by former players, and the subsequent significant rise in insurance premiums, they can ill-afford to be taking a gamble on a series that loses money.
Taking a game outside of the heartlands heightens that risk.
There’s also the question of where.
Coventry has hosted internationals, including a World Cup match last year, but the stadium has had a turbulent year with the demise of rugby union club Wasps, while the city’s football team are in with a chance of promotion to the Premier League, which could make nailing a date difficult.
With the Magic Weekend being staged in Newcastle, the north east is a reasonable suggestion – but St James’ Park is too big for an England v Tonga match, and Kingston Park too small.
Going to London would have been my preferred route, though again finding a suitably sized stadium is a challenge. Wembley, the Emirates, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Olympic Stadium are probably only appropriate for a visit of Australia at this point.
One modest sized stadium, Brentford’s 17,250 community stadium, would struggle for availability given the football and rugby union seasons would be on at the same time.
A left-field suggestion might have been Craven Cottage, where the riverside stand has recently undergone development to increase capacity. It’s where professional rugby league started in London, and would be a nice nod to the sport’s heritage and story there.
But for 2023 at least, England will stick with the tried and tested.
Response to the series has been mixed at best
While it’s finally a relief to know what elite international rugby league we’ll have to look forward to at the end of the year, it hasn’t stopped criticism of the choice of venues.
The desire of some to be big and bold and choose three non-heartlands venues is perhaps naive to the financial reality, but there should have at least been one venue for champions of the game to cling on to.
RFL chairman Simion Johnson responded to criticism on Twitter: “We thought long and hard about venues and decided to stick with those venues that has been successful in the World Cup. London remains an important part of our strategic plan, a key part of the IMG strategy and a focus.”
St Helens journalist Mike Critchley advocated for a test in London in his article in response to news of the series, warmly received in the town.
He wrote in St Helens Star: “International rugby should be deployed to open doors to other areas and raise its profile, not simply throw a comfort blanket around its core base.
“Playing all three England test games within a 55-mile stretch of the M62 smacks of a total lack of ambition.
“This series, against an opposition as dynamic and eye-catching as Tonga, should have had a test match in England’s capital city.”
Gavin Wilson tweeted: “I should be excited about an historic test series for England against Tonga, but the venue choices are safe, boring and symptomatic of a governing body that is ran like a local working man’s club.”
Phil tweeted: “Great to have more international rugby league confirmed. However I hope conversations were held with stadia outside the heartlands. There should’ve been one game in an expansion area.”