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International rugby league: The price of change

Antonio Gramsci: The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Morbid symptoms seem to afflicting rugby league at the moment. Whether it’s perceived low crowds at international games, a lack of interest from national media, or simply being able to stage competitive and interesting Test Matches, there seems to be plenty to moan about.

According to one breed of fan, the game has never been in a worse state internationally, with England seemingly as far off beating Australia as ever.

But England is not the world. Nor is Australia, believe it or not.

More countries are playing more games of international rugby league than ever before: the old is dying while the new is doing its best to be born.

One of the main issues we face seems to be calibre of leadership. People collect salaries in rugby league bodies in the UK and are seemingly beyond censure.

The legacy of the last World Cup has been non-existent, for example. In the two years since Scotland qualified for the Four Nations, nothing, literally nothing, was done by anyone with influence to help the Scots develop a domestic game.

Whether deliberate or not, the RFL seems to have adopted a Thatcherite creed with regard to the other British nations, just letting them sink or fall, and washing their hands of responsibility (conveniently) in the process.

When one compares it to the way volunteers (that’s people who are unpaid, in case anyone was wondering) work in countries like Serbia, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Jamaica, Canada, the USA, Malta and Spain, the contrast is frightening.

People in those countries have taken a minority sport with a few participants into the national news in all of those nations, in various ways, using different, but successful approaches, with next to no resources and no money.

If rugby league people in this country possessed a small amount of that commitment, passion and drive, we would probably be doing a lot better.

The way in which Australians such as Jamie Soward have criticised the game is also illuminating. Not for Soward’s comments themselves, which are neither particularly perceptive nor original, but for the wake-up call that it might deliver some Down Under.

Is there really any pride to be taken in beating countries with a fraction of the resource and rugby league culture that Australia has? Is it really so great to be top of a tree where only one branch thrives?

Hopefully, what Wayne Bennett has seen in his recent sojourn with the England squad can open a few eyes Down Under as to the real state of the game.

Workington, despite what the Kiwis may think, is a far more typical rugby league venue than ANZ Stadium.

NRL people understanding that properly and responding in an appropriate way may actually generate some progress internationally.

There is a widening pool of countries playing rugby league now – 40 in total, according to the RLIF world rankings. They need regular games, not the paltry and tokenistic affairs that currently occur.

Nations like Scotland, Wales, France, Samoa and Fiji should be playing each other regularly. Countries like the USA and Canada can provide top rank venues of all sizes.

The recent rugby union autumn internationals dominated the UK TV airwaves in recent weeks.

Very evenly matched countries from both hemispheres contested the games. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago in union.

Their internationals were often mismatches, even in the Six Nations. Such results often caused angst and wailing about the future of the game.

But they kept playing them. Countries like Japan and Argentina were toured, and brought into the world game properly, with respect. They were helped, encouraged and given pathways into the top level of the game.

Ireland played the All Blacks in the USA, too. Now that’s an idea…

There is very little respect for any country currently outside the top three in rugby league.

The RFL seems to think that chasing World Cup success with England should be their top aim. Personally, that idea seems to be a doomed wild goose chase.

The recent Four Nations showed just how large the gap is.

The Four Nations is actually one of those ‘symptoms of morbidity’ referenced above.

It’s a dying tournament, which has never looked anything less than anaemic throughout its history.

Totally biased against the fourth nation, whoever they turned out to be, it seemed designed with the express intention of making things as easy as possible for Australia and NRL players.

A bit of a jolly, rather than a serious tournament. A token gesture to tradition, a bit like City v Country has been for years. That got binned this year too, by the way.

It needs to go. Talk is that tours are returning for the top three nations anyway, with maybe Great Britain making a return.

There has been talk of six-team or eight-team tournaments featuring second tier nations too.

A new and more positive future is in the process of being born.

But until the new comes into its own, we still have to deal with the symptoms of death of the old game.

Times will be difficult. Times are hard in the wider world, and miracle workers are in short supply.

Patience will be required, and people may have to face many things that they don’t like.

But a better world is on the way, however long it may take to arrive. And, rather than resenting the game’s spread across the world, it might better to embrace it, cling on tight, and enjoy the ride.

Death of anything is a hard thing with which to deal, but death is the price we pay for change.

 

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