While discord and discontent are the flavour of the day in England’s northern counties and rich men plot in smoke-filled rooms to bring to an end his tenure at the Rugby Football League, Nigel Wood has chosen to take on a monumental task on the other side of the world.
Six months on from the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, the newly-anointed Chairman of the Rugby League International Federation is faced with an international scene that remains in a constant state of flux. Following the undoubted success of RLWC 2013 and the explosion of Polynesian talent now dominating the NRL (29% of the competition’s elite athletes are from islander or Maori backgrounds) we could and probably should be looking forward to a period of unprecedented international growth and the emergence of some powerful Test nations to challenge the hegemony of Australia, New Zealand and England.
What we’re left with, however, is a hastily arranged Four Nations tournament, one-off Tests which some of the talent showcased in RLWC2013 chose to forego in order to play in domestic trial games, and no prospect of a meaningful home international in the UK any time before 2016.
We should, of course, be in a much stronger position. The NRL has been crowing long and loud about its $1.025billion TV contract which should not only put rugby league in a dominant position in Australia’s eastern states but could also potentially put some much-needed rocket burners under the international game. Sadly, amongst a growing clamour to shorten the NRL season, all of the focus has been on accommodating State of Origin and, to a lesser extent, the current fad for Nine-a-side competitions; talk of making positive changes to the international game has been conspicuous by its absence.
The logic behind this insularity is simple enough: most of the revenue coming into the game is for NRL/Origin so all of the game’s focus needs to be on those two successful and unashamedly parochial ‘products.’ If you view Australia, or at least its eastern seaboard, as existing in a hermetically sealed bubble, then there’s little you can really bring forth to challenge that argument. The problem is that whilst the game is likely to go from strength to strength in Sydney, Brisbane and their satellites, it runs the risk of being rendered irrelevant outside of those narrow confines.
There is an existing blueprint that the NRL seems to be rushing headlong to follow: AFL is an absolute religion in those parts of Australia where rugby league has failed to make any significant impact since 1908. Indeed, despite the unprecedented success of the Storm, the former NRL premiers continue to play second fiddle to the ten AFL clubs that dominate the sporting landscape of Melbourne and its surrounding environs. And, to be fair to the AFL, that governing body has at least demonstrated a willingness to invest in growth areas such as Sydney and south-east Queensland and has had the resilience to stick with these projects through their difficult formative years. But for all the fervour for AFL in places like Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, the code is little more than a quaint curiousity and a past-time for expats outside of Australia.
Rugby league’s cheerleaders in the Sydney media continue to decry the AFL’s status as a sporting island and argue that the AFL “would kill for” the 13-man game’s representative structure. Yet these are the very same people who seem only too happy to take an axe to international rugby league’s green shoots of growth, whilst drawing comfort from the fact that the parlous state of Australian Rugby Union leaves them immune from the daily threat posed by the 15-man game in most other league playing nations. Once again, these people are failing to see the bigger picture and, in doing so, run the risk of dragging the sport into a sporting ghetto – albeit a lucrative one – at a time when we ought to be looking forward to a period of rapid growth.
When these catcalls are joined by the likes of Steve Mascord, you know it’s time to get worried. Mascord, who seems a good egg and has clocked up more than a few air-miles reporting on the international game, used his column in the Sydney Morning Herald this week to effectively write off international rugby league as a serious enterprise, arguing somewhat bizarrely that the Kangaroos should abandon playing Tests on home soil and assume the mantle of “rugby league’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters.”
When challenged on his apparent defence of continued Australian intransigence on Twitter, he responded: “The World Cup made $7 million. The #NRL TV deal is $1.025 BILLION. Who’s gonna win that battle? We’re not and never have been (on the same team). If the truth depresses you then that’s your choice.”
Mascord & co may well be right, and NRL CEO Dave Smith’s sizeable war chest may well encourage more leading Australian players to remain as big stars in Sydney’s small but cash-rich pond. Nevertheless, Smith’s TV dollars alone may not be enough to persuade many of the game’s superstars – particularly those like Sam Burgess and Sonny-Bill Williams who are excluded from the Origin party – to forego the opportunity to be involved in rugby union’s extensive international scene. Origin may stop traffic in Sydney and Brisbane but can you really blame Sonny-Bill and Sam for turning to a sport that offers regular blue chip occasions like the RBS Six Nations, The World Cup and even the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games?
Back here in the UK these concerns become more pressing. The RFL’s controversial contract renewal with Sky will undoubtedly secure the future of a handful of moribund clubs but, at least in the minds of one or two outspoken critics, offers little prospect for growth. Moreover, the new structure that’s due to commence in 2015 will see England’s leading players worked like Blackpool donkeys over the course of a proposed 30-game regular season, with few guaranteed opportunities to play in high profile international fixtures. A former RL player agent told me a couple of years ago that he’d advise any talented young three-quarter to jump at the chance of a move to rugby union if the opportunity presented itself. That revelation shocked and dismayed me at the time. But, again, could you really blame someone like Kallum Watkins or Josh Charnley if they decided to opt for the chance to earn more money for playing fewer club games AND to have the opportunity to enjoy the platform provided by established events like the Six Nations Championship?
It’s easy for those of us in the stands to be partisan and judgemental of defectors such as Burgess, Williams and Kyle Eastmond, but our game is failing to provide these talents with the international stage they deserve and, while ever the nouveau riche but crippingly parochial Aussies hold the whip hand, there’s little real prospect of positive change.
The truth is, if Mr Wood and his colleagues at the RFL really want to secure a more meaningful representative structure for England’s leading players, they’d have more joy going ‘cap in hand’ to Twickenham than they would sitting around a negotiating table once every six months in Sydney. And that, my friends, is a truly depressing thought.
FOOTNOTE: the continued uncertainty surrounding the international game will doubtless be used by ‘RL Meltdown’ types as a stick to beat the RFL and, more specifically, Nigel Wood with. Let’s not forget though, that the big guy still has plenty of ‘credit at the bank’ in terms of international RL, following the success of the World Cup, and he’ll be dealing with a group of Australian administrators whose new-found riches will only serve to embolden their stubbornly insular standpoint. If he can emerge from that boardroom with any kind of concession, he’ll deserve a knighthood!