It has been the overused catch-cry of the Rugby League Twitterati of late that the game is dead or, at the very least, breathing its last. It is typically nothing more than a look-at-me moan that shows little understanding of the sport’s history in either Australia or the UK.
There is one element of the game, though, that is very much at a crossroads following Australia and New Zealand’s decision to pull out of the Rugby League World Cup later this year, for this is the culmination of a long-held disinterest-bordering-on-contempt Australian rugby league has held for the international game. What could have been a watershed week for international rugby league with the announcement that the 2032 Olympics would be held in the league heartland of Brisbane has turned into another unnecessary self-inflicted drama.
One of the great tropes to which those who deride rugby league retreat is that the game lacks a true international presence. While there have certainly been sporadic jabs at those knocks – most recently, the rise and rise of Tonga following the last World Cup and the Toronto Wolfpack experiment – the game has essentially been contained to its traditional heartlands.
The news that Brisbane will host the 2032 Games should have been viewed by the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and the rugby league world as a major opportunity to take the game to the world. Brisbane is the world capital of rugby league, but the decision to castrate the World Cup shows just how blinkered powerbrokers in the game are and just how little care they have for opening the game to the world.
Australia and New Zealand – the only nations to lift the World Cup since 1972 – announced on Thursday that they would not be participating in this year’s tournament based on “safety, health and wellbeing” concerns. It is the flashpoint of a cold war between southern hemisphere powerbrokers who did not want the World Cup to proceed as scheduled this year and UK organisers who were steadfast that the show must go on.
The NRL and Australian clubs have essentially held the international game to ransom and when the International Rugby League did not accede to requests to delay the tournament, they pulled the trigger and implemented the nuclear option.
Under the cover of Covid, the ARLC and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) are refusing to send teams to what should be the jewel in the rugby league crown, robbing the tournament of its biggest names and its two most successful nations. It is a weak justification for such a monumental move that has the real potential to end international rugby league.
Covid continues to have a major impact across the world but the UK has clearly demonstrated an ability to host major sporting events. In the past month England has hosted the Euro 2020 final, Wimbledon, the Open Championship and the British Grand Prix, true international events all operated under strict health and safety protocols. There were no notable issues when it came to athlete health or safety.
There is little doubt that Covid has been used as a smokescreen by powerful Australian clubs and administrators to further undermine an element they consider obtrusive and costly. International rugby league, once prized in Australia and New Zealand, now runs a distant third behind the club game and State of Origin in the southern hemisphere.
The positioning of international rugby league in the Australian pecking order is nothing new. It was trending downwards by the mid-1980s for a number of reasons – the power of NRL clubs being at the top of that list – and the gulf is widening. But even the most ardent detractor of the international game would find withdrawing from a World Cup astonishing.
While it has been cast as a health and safety matter, this is nothing more than a power play by Australian clubs wanting to ensure their players get an off-season and are ready to roll in 2022.
This was barely disguised opportunism with little consideration being given to the true long-term sustainability of the sport. Rugby league will never die – its resilience should never be understated – but it will also never be all it could be because it can never overcome self-interest and a short-term focus.
World Cup organisers are now in an awful position. Proceed without the two biggest nations and two of the biggest three draws or kowtow to Australian clubland, further compromising the international game.
Following New Zealand’s shock win at the 2008 World Cup, there have been significant opportunities to grow and foster the international game. Popularity in New Zealand soared. Pacific Tests were introduced and for the first time the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga had NRL players en masse turn out.
Tonga emerged as a powerhouse at the 2017 World Cup and went on to defeat Australia a year later. A revival of the Kangaroo Tour concept was mooted. With no strategy and a reliance on the generosity of Australian clubs though, all hope quickly gets snuffed out.
So it is again.
This is a devastating week for rugby league. The international game is now on life support. Sadly, once again, it is short-term self-interest that put it there.