Five burning questions facing international rugby league

James Gordon
George Williams England SWpix

Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix

The mid-season internationals between England and France have been and gone, and probably raised more questions than answers.

England coaches Shaun Wane and Stuart Barrow will have undoubtedly been happy with what they saw, if a little disappointed at the lack of competitiveness provided by their respective opposition.

But from a fan point of view – both in the ground and watching on TV at home – the whole thing was all a bit flat.

We take a look at some of the burning questions stemming from what feels like another bump in the road for international rugby league.

Should the War of the Roses be brought back?

Kris Radlinski Lancashire v Yorkshire War of Roses PA Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Archive/PA Images

I’m relatively indifferent about the War of Roses concept generally but it is ironic that some people are happy to champion the success of having heritage nations playing in the World Cup, but won’t do the same for ‘War of the Roses’.

As a person born in what is now (and has always been in my lifetime) in Cheshire with what you could call “Lancashire Heritage”, the War of the Roses concept has never really meant a great deal to me compared to the older generation or indeed people of my generation from Yorkshire.

It’s 20 years since it last failed as a concept, and perhaps it’s now going to be worth a discussion again as rugby league’s realistic way of getting a competitive mid-season hit-out for English based players.

People will cry ‘what about the south’ or ‘what about Cumbria’ – which is fair, but perhaps it’s then up to them to make their argument for playing fixtures too.

Rugby league needs to make the most of its USPs, and a Lancashire v Yorkshire battle could well be something IMG could get their teeth in to and make a big success.

Is it time to admit international rugby league is for ‘end of year’ only?

Tonga v England international rugby league PA Photo: David Rowland/AAP/PA Images

Given virtually all of the competitive rugby league nations are based in the southern hemisphere, and even an increasing number of the England squad are, attempting to play mid-season internationals feels like more hassle than it’s worth.

Instead, shorten the domestic season and make a concerted effort to nail down an international calendar that dominates October and November’s schedules year in, year out.

The delayed World Cup has knocked short-term plans out of the window, but perhaps after the 2025 World Cup we might see some progress.

Take this year, for example. With an England team participating in the European Championship, the full England team could instead be on tour Down Under rather than playing a home series with Tonga, meaning there would be games on both sides of the world.

There are enough nations in the southern hemisphere now for them to hold an annual competition that can be flexible – with one or two teams dropping out every other year to go on tour on this side of the world.

What to do about France?

Cesar Rouge France international rugby league News Images Photo: Steve Flynn/News Images

England have played France 18 times in the past 20 years, winning them all handsomely. France are apparently not getting any better.

That’s despite the fact for the past 18 seasons, they have had a full-time team in Super League.

Clearly that’s not anywhere near enough to help develop an international nation. Maybe getting Toulouse in again will help, but it’s well beyond anything that the RFL can do.

The French Federation has got to take the lead. Ambitious president Luc Lacoste has brought the World Cup home for them in 2025, but they’re going to need sharp improvements and fast to ensure that doesn’t become a missed opportunity, and a potentially costly one at that.

It’s disappointing that so far in to the French experiment that Samisoni Langi is their best option to play centre.

The French Elite Championship appears to be growing in standard and exposure, yet still there are very few of those part-time players entrusted with places in the France squad.

Only recently have Catalans started to blood more French players week in, week out in key positions, rather than simply carrying them as fringe players, and this appears to be something IMG have identified that is needed to help provide England with some competitive opposition.

The France-England internationals must continue annually, alternating between the two countries each year, but at the end of the season.

FRAYSSINOUS: France need to keep playing England despite ‘reality check’

Why did no other European nations play on the ‘international’ weekend?

Scotland Rugby League World Cup international rugby league PA Photo: David Davies/PA Archive/PA Images

A northern hemisphere international break is a complete fallacy. It’s a break for an England game, nothing else. Scotland, Ireland and Italy are nations that merely exist to play at World Cups, who can just about scrape together teams to play in the end of season European Championship. That’s meant as no offence to those involved and the volunteers behind the scenes, but that’s the reality.

The well-structured European Championships format that the European Rugby League has come up with is the most likely way for things to grow, not playing mid-season games that would likely cost a small fortune to put on that these nations can’t afford.

There is a limited player pool in each of these countries which, if they suffered some of the withdrawals we’ve seen from England and France last week, would leave them short of a team.

The vast majority of the players would be semi-professional or even amateur, which then creates further issues such as the logistics of getting time off work and travelling for the game, that’s even before the added risk of loss of earnings – either from their domestic club contract or their day job. The sharp rise in general living costs means flying players over from multiple locations to play an international in front of a few thousand fans (which is all most of these nations could hope to attract) simply isn’t viable.

Why aren’t any of this year’s internationals held outside the heartlands, such as in London?

Danny Walker England News Images
Photo: Steve Flynn/News Images

Back in March, International Rugby League chief Troy Grant stated that the World Cup ‘demonstrated the heartlands in too many areas were far from the stronghold of the game they profess to be’.

A crowd of just over 8,000 for a game in one of the sport’s strongest areas, Warrington, was nothing more than alright for what wasn’t expected to be a particularly competitive contest.

The worry is that if international rugby league can’t attract its existing supporter base to come out and see it, what chance has it got of doing so elsewhere, without significant investment in marketing?

The reality is that the RFL cannot afford to lose money on internationals in the current climate. Their options for stadia outside the heartlands are either too big (such as St James’ Park and the Emirates) or the ones that have a more modest capacity (like Brentford or Coventry) are far too expensive given the number of tickets that could be sold.

It’s otherwise known as being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unless someone outside the heartlands is willing to foot the bill of a gamble (as the Government did for the World Cup) to take a game there, it appears that at least for the foreseeable, the RFL will be responsibly seeking the best deals they can from the areas they can trust will sell the most tickets.

READ NEXT: War of the Roses – Yorkshire v Lancashire return idea discussed by pundits