International rugby league’s future dependent on Australia commitment

James Gordon
Australia captain James Tedesco international rugby league

While the wait for confirmation of the international programme for 2023 is being attributed to the ongoing discussions in the NRL, there remain questions over the commitment of world champions Australia.

The Kangaroos returned to the field for the first time since 2019 at the recent World Cup, eventually winning the tournament for a record 12th time.

A planned Ashes tour in 2020 was cancelled due to COVID, which means it is now more than six years since Australia last played England in the UK.

That game in the 2016 Four Nations is the only time Australia have played England in England in the last 11 years, an incredible statistic when you consider the majority of professional teams and players in the world are based in those two countries. Australia have only played five games outside of World Cups since that 2016 event.

Sam Burgess and Johnathon Thurston after the last time Australia faced England in England, at the London Stadium. Picture by Allan McKenzie/

The NRL taking priority

Their interest in the international game seems to have waned in recent years, as the NRL’s commercial growth continues, together with State of Origin being seen as the pinnacle of their game.

The current stand off between the NRL and its clubs and players over the collective bargaining agreement is being attributed as the reason behind the continued delay to the publication of the international calendar, which had been initially promised mid way through last year.

READ MORE: Why the wait goes on for international calendar & England plans for 2023

That is holding up England’s plans to announce the hosting of a home series at the end of this year, likely to be against Tonga.

While Australia have already said they wouldn’t be coming to these shores, the issue is that the international game is dependent on the NRL releasing players for the majority of nations, regardless of Australia’s involvement themselves.

It’s preventing a follow up to the feel good factor created by the recent World Cup, which enjoyed unprecedented coverage on the BBC.

Does Australia commitment equal growth of the international game?

At Headingley, where Australia ended their run of 1,078 days without a game when they faced Fiji on the tournament’s opening day, there are still signs from the World Cup games its hosted.

Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington is still, like every other rugby league fan, waiting to see just when Headingley or anywhere else will see further international rugby league.

Hetherington said: “I, like every other rugby league supporter, am very frustrated. We’re very dependent on the NRL and the Australians really coming to the fore and embracing the international game.

“What the World Cup showed us is how much potential there is globally and how much interest can be generated when our very best players come together and nations can compete against each other.

“We need an international calendar as soon as possible.

“There is a real commitment from England. There is a real commitment from France. There’s a real commitment from New Zealand, from Tonga, from Fiji, from Samoa, from so many countries.

“We just need the Australians, who are of course the world champions, to have that same level of commitment and I think there’s huge opportunities for international rugby league.”

The international game is likely to be a factor in the plans laid out by IMG, currently trying to re-imagine rugby league as part of their 12-year deal to grow the sport.

Hetherington, who has been heading the Rhinos for 25 years, has been a key figure in the administration of the game in that time and a key player in Super League talks.

The recently re-developed Headingley is likely to be a contender for home internationals, especially if the opposition is outside the traditional big attractions of Australia and New Zealand, though large football stadiums will be up for consideration.

England have organised a mid-season test against France at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington, but it seems unlikely any other internationals will be announced before Super League gets underway in just over a fortnight.

MORE: How the international rugby league calendar is shaping up for 2023