The announcements made by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) after a meeting in Sydney included a four-year international calendar to be unveiled later this year, an England tour Down Under in 2019, a Rugby League 9s World Cup the same year, and the funding of an Emerging Nations World Championship in 2018.
These plans form part of the RLIF’s vision for a more coherent, long-term international rugby league calendar, which – it was announced last year – will include a 2021 World Cup in the UK and 2025 World Cup in the United states and Canada – possibly the first time in rugby league history that the next three World Cups (if we include this year’s event) have all been scheduled.
Some issues remain however. The international schedule was first promised after the last RLIF meeting, in Liverpool in November, and there are still some very significant gaps – no indication has yet been given of any plans for the Tier 2 and several of the Tier 3 nations.
Countries such as Scotland, France, Samoa, Fiji and many others may have to wait until autumn this year for confirmation of what’s in store for them in the upcoming four-year calendar, the 2021 World Cup being the only solid proposal for that period at this stage. This must hamper the ability of these nations – some of which receive minimal support and resources as it is – to adequately prepare for that World Cup – or, indeed, any other events in which they may be expected to take part, such as Four Nations tournaments or a Federation Cup.
Rugby league has consistently lagged behind soccer, rugby union and cricket in long-term planning, especially when it comes to the international game. It’s just to be hoped that the calendar announced in the autumn proves to have been worth the wait.
The proposal for an England tour is a good one. The original proposals for such a tour to take place in 2015 – Including matches against clubs, local representative sides, and Test matches against Australia – were genuinely exciting, and it was a real shame when that tour was scrapped. The only disappointment is, arguably, that it will be England undertaking the tour rather than Great Britain, as had been originally suggested.
The Rugby League 9s World Cup is also a worthwhile idea, with the potential to grow interest in the international game and perhaps offer a setting in which the Tier 2 and 3 nations can compete with Australia, New Zealand and England.
Yet the most significant announcement was the RLIF-funded Emerging Nations World Championship to take place in 2018. This has proved a controversial issue over the last few months. The RLIF originally giving the go-ahead for the organisation of such an event or series of matches take place alongside the World Cup this autumn, albeit without any central funding. That permission, however, was removed, in circumstances which remain unclear, but nevertheless caused a great deal of hurt to the emerging nations.
This led to talk of some of these nations withdrawing from the RLIF and forming a breakaway international federation, a move which would certainly have caused a great deal of damage at a time when rugby league is still struggling for official recognition across the world. Some would argue that the RLIF caused these issues – such accusations remain unproven, however, and in either case credit is due for finding a way to avoid such a damaging schism.
There are enough positives then to take away from this week’s announcements, with the caveat that much more needs to be done in order to secure a viable future for international rugby league.
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