Rugby League European Federation general manager Danny Kazandjian is optimistic that the forthcoming European Championships will help establish international rugby league’s place in the wider sporting calendar.
The tournament kicks off on Friday night, when Wales face Scotland at Workington. As well as a place in the 2016 Four Nations for the winners, Ireland and Wales can also qualify for the next World Cup, should they win the tournament.
Kazandjian, who is the tournament director, is keen to stress that the new structure of European international rugby can help to make every game really count for something, and give international competition the status it deserves.
“We really believe in the brand of the European Championship,” he told Love Rugby League.
“It cuts across all sports. It’s a strong brand and has been in existence in rugby league since the 1930s.
“It’s suffered a little bit because there hasn’t been any consistency to it, in terms of the frequency of the number of times the tournament’s played, and the format.
“So we’re really behind the European Championship getting a fixed place in the calendar, so that nations who are involved in it now can see what the consequences of success and failure are – not just for this year, but in four, eight or 10 years time.
“We’re also really keen to see it have a place in the international calendar linked to other international competitions that we’ve established.
“It’s a really strong competition, the calibre of the teams involved, given what we’ve seen since 2010, when we re-packaged our international tournaments, shows that we can provide some fantastic rugby league.
“Central to our international strategy is making all of our competitions aspirational, in that countries really want to be a part of them.
“They can see that participaing in them has a clear consequence. You either win and get a major prize out of it, or you lose and suffer the consequences of relegation, as has happened this year in Euro C, where the Czech Republic have been relegated out of the championship structure.
“Making sure that all of our competitions have got the maximum amount of gravitas is important to us, and we’re definitely moving the right direction on that front, because of the interaction we’ve got with the International Federation.
“And also because of the belief from nearly everyone in the game that you need a really robust international calendar where countries know that if they win they get something, and if they lose they fall away.”
The development of the game in Europe means that there are plenty of countries looking to replace the Czechs too.
“[Their replacements] are to be decided, there are several applicants,” Kazandjian confirmed.
“But it’ll be another member country, maybe Spain or Norway. That will be decided in the next two months.”
Some international tournaments seem to have suffered in recent years due to countries not being able to select their full complement of players, for a variety of reasons.
Kazandjian maintains that selection is a matter for the nations themselves, though, and that even the top tier of nations suffer from withdrawals.
“Our members are sovereign members, they’re all independent nations, so they’re all growing and building their own operations as well,” he added.
“But I think we’ve got some really high quality players in this tournament.
“If you speak to the coaches, they’ll tell you that some of the young players coming up are of the highest calibre.
“One of the greatest things for the competition is that it’s very difficult to separate the four teams.
“Many spectators would say that France would possibly have the edge because they have the experience of a large group of players playing together at one club.
“But they probably thought that in 2010 too, and Wales upset them by a point at home.
“So it’s a really open tournament and the players that are involved are super committed to their nations, and that’s to be applauded.”
Kazandjian also agrees with the notion that having professional clubs based in each European country is an important long-term aim.
“If you consider the amount of homegrown Welsh players who have come through rugby league programmes, certainly when you compare the 2000 World Cup and the 2013 World Cup, the number of born and bred Welsh players who have come through their production line and are now playing fully professionally or in the Championship has increased massively.
“So that is absolutely the way to go in the long term.
“But they would agree that that is their ambition.”