Is the World Cup to blame for NRL injury crisis?

James Gordon

The international calendar is currently up in the air due to the ongoing player dispute in the NRL, and conversations around it are unlikely to get easier.

Although the league season has got underway, the NRL and its clubs and players still haven’t finalised a new collective bargaining agreement – which is the deal that confirms minimum terms and conditions of the players’ employment as well as important financial arrangements.

It has meant that any hope of a quick follow up to the World Cup with the announcement of top-level internationals for 2023 has long since been extinguished.

The international plans of Australia et al are all dependent on the NRL reaching an appropriate agreement, given that virtually all of the players playing internationally for Southern Hemisphere nations ply their trade in the competition.

The consequence is that England have been unable to confirm their own plans for 2023, which they still hope will include a home test series against Tonga.

While they are maintaining confidence over that, with coach Shaun Wane saying it is ‘more than likely’ to happen at a press event last week, there are constant rumblings of a Four Nations without England being held Down Under.

Another excuse for Australia?

An issue that won’t go away is the commitment of the world champions, and undoubted best rugby league nation in the world, Australia to the international game.

That is unlikely to be helped too by noise coming from pundits Down Under attributing the current injury crisis in the NRL to the international game, and specially last year’s World Cup.

NRL 360 reporter Paul Kent is quoted by Yahoo: “The NRL has got to start to rethink its international schedule out of all of this, you talk about Canterbury, who have now gone and sought an exemption only five rounds in.

Only five rounds in, because in their 30-man squad they can’t find 21 jumpers. What was it, two weeks ago, Newcastle sought an exemption.

Because we had the World Cup last year, and we have an international program that fills up all the months after the season now. And the players have to have eight weeks holiday according to the CBA, it cuts down on their pre-season which most people tend to believe leads to all these injuries.

Why do we have to grow the international game? How does Samoa’s performance at the World Cup enhance the NRL who are now looking at clubs having to get exemptions.

I’m talking every year, I get it once every four years, but every year the Kangaroos tour.”

The irony in Kent’s comments is that Australia hadn’t played a game at all anywhere since 2019, prior to the World Cup. Their last proper tour was some 20 years ago, back in 2003.

There are currently 103 NRL players sidelined through injury according to their latest Casualty Ward report.

That includes England international Luke Thompson, while Australia’s James Tedesco and Fiji’s Viliame Kikau are currently out through concussions.

Only three of the 16 nations at the World Cup didn’t have any NRL players in their squads – Jamaica, Wales and France.

All 16 NRL clubs were represented, with a total of 155 players making the trip to England for the tournament. That number includes the likes of Anthony Milford, Isaiya Katoa, the Bromwich brothers, Kodi Nikorima and Euan Aitken, who all linked up with the NRL’s 17th club, the Dolphins, ahead of their inaugural year in 2023.

VERDICT: International rugby league’s future dependent on Australia commitment

Does the NRL need the international game, or could they see it as a hindrance?

As previously written, it’s bad news for England – the NRL could, in theory, control its own version of the international game and hold a very competitive competition involving Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands nations, and cut out England, who are realistically the only northern hemisphere nation of interest to those Down Under.

The end of the season is the only realistic window for games to be played if it involves cross-hemisphere nations, which eats in to the proposed off-season down-time being proposed by the NRL Players’ Association.

While there are some differing opinions in response to Kent’s comments, there remains an underlying message that the international game is still crucial to the growth of rugby league.

Mick A. tweeted: “Paul Kents point should be explored. If 7 of the best 8 international teams in the worlds players all play in the NRL. The best way to grow the game is by following the NFL model. Not the World Rugby/FIFA model. Dolphins’ vs Broncos got similar viewership to WC final. $ Talks”

Duke25: “Paul has no idea or creditability. The players that were spoken about being injured DID NOT play in the RLWC. Has nothing to do with it. Paul Kent embarrassed himself once again last night. International RL is the way to grow the game/sport.”

Danny: “The NRL is not the NFL, the international game needs investment and support to grow globally! It might help with the so called ‘exodus’ to union…”