All hail the Kiwis! It has been a long time coming, but was this the week that international rugby league finally began to grow a pair?
As someone who loves that aspect of our sport more than any other, having watched matches in Lebanon, France and Russia among other such exotic locales in my time (does Swansea count?), I very much hope so.
There’s something about being at a game on foreign soil and seeing it interpreted and enjoyed by another culture that really floats my boat, along with noting how leaguies are pretty much cut from the same cloth the planet over.
Since the Aussies leapt aboard HMS Northern Union in 1908 though, at the top level it has been an all too predictable story results-wise.
One superpower (us for a while, believe it or not kids), a second-placed nation giving them a game now and then and occasionally turning them over, plus a third or at best fourth nation (most often New Zealand and France) making up the numbers.
Oh, and we could always trot out the semi-apologetic line about rugby league being the national sport of Papua New Guinea, don’tcha know, if that braying berk in the pub with the upturned collar got a little bit too obnoxious.
Of course, even the tectonic plates of that scenario have shifted in recent times. Australia are now top dogs, with the Kiwis edging past England or Great Britain, call them what you will, into second place, with France and by and large PNG falling off the competitive table completely.
But while an always less than satisfactory top table has shrunk to three nations now in competitive terms, since the 1995 World Cup there has been a steadier less high-profile growth of what used to be called fledgling nations.
Often that ‘growth’ has been over-stated and many a false dawn has broken, in countries like South Africa, Holland and Morocco for example. Very often a rugby league ‘nation’ has been a solitary if enthusiastic individual who might have been better advised to go trainspotting.
But given that we are only talking about a couple of decades, it might be best to look on such developments as the natural ebb and flow of tides let loose by union’s acceptance of open professionalism from the mid-1990s onwards.
Indeed, the very concept of fledgling nations would have been little but a wild dream before then; South Africans like Wigan’s Attie van Heerden and David Booysen or Bradford’s David Barends being forced to make do with representing the Other Nationalities side that played from 1904 to 1975, and notwithstanding the occasional dabble from the likes of Italy, Yugoslavia as was and the USA.
In light of the hundred-year drought that went before, 20 years doesn’t seem all that long a period in which to reach the current situation therefore. At the last count, 45 national associations came under the auspices of the Rugby League International Federation – whose 34 official nations at last have their very own full-time chief executive and reportedly soon an actual office (or possibly glorified storage cupboard, but hey, small acorns and all that) at one of the most desirable addresses in London.
As the only journalistic geek present at the founding of the RLIF’s European arm, the RLEF, in Paris in January 2003, it’s all extremely encouraging.
Indeed, from the gaggle of frankly oddball loose cannons gathered back then to hear deputy chairman Richard Lewis in a hotel not far from the Champs-Elysées, has sprung a far more cohesive and organised set-up of 20 full members and 14 observers, including nations from beyond the continent such as Jamaica, those darn South Africans and Canada, plus office space also in Fitzrovia.
We, and they, should take a moment to celebrate that.
But not for too long as trouble is brewing. This is rugby league, so of course trouble is brewing.
As with the domestic scene in the UK and Australia, the top-flight is the shop window and, frankly, growth of that particular part of the international game has seldom looked more promising.
During last weekend’s international stand-alone weekend down under – an idea that surely has to be transported to the northern hemisphere in the not too distant future – New Zealand took all the headlines with a comprehensive victory in the ANZAC Test match, their third consecutive win over the old enemy and the first time that such a triple-whammy had been delivered since 1953.
If the Kiwis beat England in this autumn’s coming three-match series in the UK, they will officially be the number one nation in the world, which you’d hope will put a few more bums on seats, wouldn’t you?
Then again, though it would be good to beat them of course (have those Wembley nightmares receded yet?) those of us with the bigger picture in mind are now surely torn. Do we really want to help the Aussies climb back up?
All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that in beating Australia in Brisbane and winning last year’s Four Nations, New Zealand ought to have been named the world’s number one nation already. Or are we saying that the aging Aussies, having themselves chosen only to play one game in 2015 and lost it, deserve that distinction? Why, that’s madder than a box of cane toads.
Give the Kiwis the number one ranking now, I say, and let us Poms set about gaining World Cup revenge over the genuine top dogs with a spring in our step, an easy conscience and a snoop cocked in two southerly directions.
But at least top-level international rugby league is a story again, a contest to be taken seriously. And with a wider Super League presence in the NRL, maybe it won’t be too long before we have that number one moniker again ourselves.
Just as intriguing, though, were the weekend’s (largely) Pacific match-ups offered in support. Samoa v Tonga sounds like it was an absolute cracker – I’m still to catch up with it – while TV viewing figures were said to be excellent throughout, with games also featuring Fiji, PNG, Niue, South Africa, Malta and Lebanon. NRL players are strengthening these nations too.
And with an administration in place down under that finally seems to have grasped the value of a global game the prospects of a colourful, well-organised and spectacularly-attended RLWC2017 look better than ever. After that, who knows what this sport – so long derided for an inability to outgrow one Australian seaboard and a northern English motorway – can become?
By the look of it, we’ll even be getting a team from Toronto in League 1 next year, assuming the largely part-time players of the rest of the clubs can wangle a few days off that is!
But what about that aforementioned cloud on an otherwise sunny horizon? It comes in the guise of a familiar foe, the same dastardly villain who in the past has played dirty tricks with pitches, duplication of fixtures and the like, while bursting the odd pigs bladder too I shouldn’t wonder.
For if the old inferiority complex of leaguies is starting to dissipate as we realise that something good is coming to the boil globally, then you can bet that hasn’t escaped the attentions of our 15-a-side cousins either.
Can it be mere coincidence that at least three national rugby league bodies are currently bumping up against or even being subsumed by rugby union authorities in their country, keen to portray league as merely a lesser version of ‘real rugby’ and therefore under their control, as rugby sevens is?
In South Africa – yes, them again – the consummation appears to be happening voluntarily.
In the United Arab Emirates it very definitely isn’t, which is just as well since Dubai is scheduled to host a World Cup qualifying match between Lebanon and, er, South Africa later this October. A line in the sand there is drawn.
As is indeed the case in Italy, where after one of two governing bodies – one officially sanctioned (FIRL), the other being ‘rebels’ apparently (LIRFL – or is the People’s Popular Front of Judea?) – last week trumpeted a link with union’s powerful FIR (think RFU, or Judean Popular People’s Front or whatever) as the best thing since sliced panettone.
Well, according to a strident RLIF statement yesterday, that agreement is in fact the worst thing since mouldy ciabatta.
“On 14 April 2015 the Italian rugby union (FIR) issued its communique ‘no. 7’ which indicated that an association named Lega Italia Rugby Football League (LIRFL) has been appointed to administer rugby league and rugby league 9s under the aegis of FIR,” the RLIF statement read.
“The RLIF categorically rejects any infringement on the sovereignty of rugby league and consequently considers FIR’s action to be illegitimate. The RLIF has sole responsibility for setting rugby league’s universal standards, laws, regulations and practices, which are disseminated through its regional confederations and members. In Italy the sole legitimate authority for rugby league is the Federazione Italiana Rugby League.
“FIR has no jurisdiction over rugby league and the RLIF has written to the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), FIR and World Rugby to confirm these facts. The body known as LIRFL is a rugby union entity without legitimacy, authority or credibility in the rugby league community.”
I don’t know about you, but part of me finds this approach cheering. Clarity is always to be valued and no set-up there can say they haven’t been told. Climbing in bed with union could unleash a right old Pandora’s box.
Then again, perhaps a bit more faith in rugby league’s ability to turn people on to its charms ought to be in evidence? Who knows, if pushed into corners of the country that an under-resourced RLEF cannot reach, maybe we will see an Australia 1908 moment – scales falling from Italian eyes.
And it always feels a bit colonial to me, telling other countries how they should manage their internal affairs. Very British Empire.
But on the whole and on this particular occasion, I welcome the RLIF’s steadfast approach, so long as it as actually backed up with action, cash and practical support for the volunteers on the ground. Otherwise, what is it exactly that they are defending? A dream? Their own jobs?
No. It may well be that one fine day, when all politicians tell the truth perhaps and there are no more cats on the internet, a single organisation will run rugby of all varieties, the better to challenge the global dominance of football.
And frankly, as long as there was recognisable rugby league to watch and the 13-a-side code’s traditions and supporter base were not only incorporated into a single narrative history but cherished, I would not give a toss.
What does it matter which CEO pockets the hefty pay cheque, as long as the sport is in competent and caring hands, and we still don’t have to sit through endless scrums and line-outs?
In any case, I’m convinced that under such circumstances, league rules would, with one or two exceptions, prove most attractive to future paying punters. But, yes, reaching such a scenario would certainly take a leap of faith that we are nowhere near ready for yet, if indeed we ever will be.
Furthermore, should such a day arrive, the people then in charge of rugby league – be they based in London, Sydney or Rome, would need to enter such negotiations from a position of strength.
And you would not be in a position of strength if, in 2015, you simply rolled over and had your tummy tickled. That’s just political common sense.
I’m still uncomfortable with the widespread use of the phrase ‘rugby league family’, particularly given the devastating death of Keighley and Wales half-back Danny Jones last week, devoted husband and father of five-month old twins.
But the sheer volume of response in the hours and days following that awful event mean all such quibbles should be put aside as trivia.
We’ve seen the rugby league community pull together around bereaved families in similar predicaments before … Roy Powell, St John Ellis, Adam Watene, Leon Walker… the list goes on. It’s what we do.
But how wonderful in an age of online social media to see a medium that can so often be put to such unpleasant egotistical use instead being turned into a quite outstanding force for good.
It isn’t all about money, of course. Danny’s wife and children will need on-going support over the years to come, while pertinent questions about obligatory screening for heart issues at every level of the game are already being asked.
But the last time I checked, the JustGiving page set up on behalf of the RFL Benevolent Fund had raised over £75,000 after having had an initial target of £1,000. That’s an astonishing and uplifting response by any definition.
Given that some 70,000 people watch live rugby league on any given weekend however – not including TV and radio audiences – and taking into account contributions from outside the sport, a figure of some 4,600 donations, while impressive, does suggest that a fair few folk are still to do their bit.
If you haven’t contributed yet and can afford to do so, please consider chipping in at https://www.justgiving.com/dannyjones29