Incredible wheelchair & women’s games highlight challenge facing the men

James Gordon
Rugby League World Cup trophies

Picture by Allan McKenzie/ / The Rugby League World Cup Trophies at the Manchester Central Convention Centre with John Bateman, Tom Halliwell & Amy Hardcastle

World Cup organisers have endured criticism during the tournament, but they made one bold move that will leave a legacy.

The decision to run the three tournaments alongside each other – men’s, women’s and wheelchair – has been its biggest success.

The quite incredible action and response to the wheelchair tournament in particular has emphasised the message of inclusion.

It will now just be the norm that the wheelchair and women’s tournaments sit alongside the men’s, and that’s a true legacy.

It’s up to others to ensure the commercial potential of all areas of the game can be maximised.

Another understated success of the World Cup organisation has been the broadcast deal. To have had all 61 games broadcast live on BBC is unrivalled, and provides significant exposure beyond what anything else could manage.

More than 30 million people will have watched this World Cup, and the peak for England’s semi-final with Samoa was 2.5 million.

An average of 500,000 viewers have tuned in to the wheelchair and women’s games too.

As well as being an event to decide the best on the pitch, the World Cup is a vehicle to introduce new people to the sport or even re-ignite passions of lapsed fans.

But as we saw with 2013, it’s what happens afterwards that matters. We still await the international calendar, for instance.

The ticketing process has left a lot to be desired. The clunky website system wasn’t the most user friendly, and many reported not being able to buy tickets for certain areas – only to then see those areas with empty seats during games – or pointed to more expensive tickets.

We’ve been told on a number of occasions that games were close to a sell out, or were even approaching record sales, only for the reality to fall short. While creating urgency is a valid marketing technique, there’s a fine line between that and deceiving people – especially when the reality is evident on the TV cameras.

It’s too soon to say just how we’ll all reflect on this World Cup, maybe we’ll only know when the next one on these shores comes along.

Rugby League World Cup organisers provide final ticket sale update

Part time v full time?

The impact of the wheelchair and women’s tournaments has highlighted a possible problem with the men’s game.

One of the greatest stories of this World Cup was the Brazil women’s team playing at Headingley, scoring a try against England. This is a genuine, international expansion team, made up of players from the country actually playing the sport. It’s a bona fide way of growing the player pool.

It’s possible in the women’s and wheelchair game – where we notably saw the USA participate – because the barrier to entry and participation isn’t as high as in the men’s game.

The ongoing issue the men’s game has is that the established leagues and countries are so far advanced, it makes creating new, competitive player pools harder. We’ve seen that on a basic scale within the UK alone – where expansion clubs in League 1 have simply struggled to compete with the “heartland” clubs, owing to them not having a player pool of sufficient quality. And even if they were able to increase participation numbers, they may take several years to get up to a decent level, by which time interest from fans has waned and money has dried up.

I think this is a good reason why the women’s game shouldn’t strive for full-time professionalism. Instead, it should focus on having a strong, widespread semi-professional game as its target.

Could international rugby league become a glorified NRL select competition?

As the elite competition in the men’s game, the NRL, grows bigger and bigger – so too, does the barrier of entry. We’re in danger of the men’s international game becoming almost exclusively “NRL select”. This is counter-productive, when the theory behind international rugby league is that it’s its best vehicle for growth.

Of course, it’s not the NRL’s fault it’s getting bigger. But just as international rugby league can’t exist without the NRL; new international rugby league nations with a new player pool can’t compete with the NRL.

The traditional “big three” and France were almost completely made up of homegrown players, with just one player in each of their squads having been born overseas.

Both Fiji and Wales boasted a credible 50% of domestic born players, with Papua New Guinea on 75%.

The inclusion of players from their respective domestic competitions enabled Greece and and Jamaica to get up to 30% and 25% respectively.

Samoa and Tonga have catapulted in to contention on the international stage off the back of a strong heritage selection, and both squads had less than 10% of players born in the respective countries.

That’s great for the short-term – but what happens when the current parentage or grandparent-age being used has run out? Only a rule change in years to come could correct it; perhaps if your father played for a country, you are also able to represent it. Or stretch it to include great-grandparents too.

Alternatively, the focus needs to be on how countries can produce more of their own homegrown players.

It seems counter-productive if the likes of France and Wales are denied progress to bigger occasions by countries almost completely made up of players produced elsewhere.

There’s also not much hope of countries getting better long-term if they are reliant on heritage players.

It was a comment by Lebanon coach Michael Cheika in his post-match press conference following their quarter-final defeat to Australia that triggered me.

When asked whether they would play a game in Lebanon, he said it was very unlikely. He hinted that there may be some local players that could play a game, but the challenges around the NRL players and logistics meant playing a home international with that squad wouldn’t happen.

One thing he said was: “Our end goal for the Australia-based crew is trying to get as many NRL players of Lebanese descent as possible so that when we come to 2025, we’ll be stronger.”

This takes us back to the earlier comment – is the future of international rugby league an “NRL select” competition, or is it about genuinely developing the game and getting more players playing around the world?

The World Cup shows that there is something there – whether someone can get a hold of it and make it work, remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure, wheelchair rugby league and the women’s game are this World Cup’s big winners.

Michael Cheika explains why more international rugby league is needed