As the sun sets on the rugby league world cup – after Australia’s resounding victory over New Zealand – I pose five points that look back over the tournament and can help us to move forward internationally and in the United Kingdom and Europe.
1) International rugby league can be spellbinding, but we need to accept the players for who they are. The product we have can dominate international rugby union given the correct time, effort and consideration. However, people need to appreciate the subtlety and malleability of the residency rules. One of the major gripes I have heard surrounding the tournament have concerned this area. To keep it simple, having relative associated with a country or residing in a country are perfectly valid reasons for representing those nations. We live in a world where a player’s global capital allows them to travel, work and reside in different areas. This leads to people living away from the areas of their national heritage, but this does not diminish the importance of this for the individual. Similarly, residing in a foreign country can afford you new representative opportunities. We cannot remain beholden to a set of principles which were valid very briefly in the twentieth century. Cricket and rugby union fans don’t worry about it, and neither should we. This means we get the best talent on show, and, as a positive thing for the sport, it puts our best players on an international stage.
2) We must get more terrestrial coverage to bring the game to a wider audience. This is essential both domestically and internationally. Over 2.2 million viewers watched England beat Fiji on BBC One. These figures trumped Sky Sports’ coverage of Premier League football (840,000 viewers) on the same Saturday. These figures solidify what we already know; getting terrestrial coverage affords the game a less specialised audience and helps to broaden the appeal of the sport. Where this goes from here I don’t know, but it is essential we do more to encourage the BBC and Channel 4 to take an interest in the sport. Channel 4 have begun to show american football, and did an excellent job with paralympic sport in 2012 so they would, at least in terms of content provision, appear to be a viable option. This should not necessarily preclude Sky and BT Sport from our thoughts, but there needs to be thoughts of providing more opportunities for the game to reach a wider and more mainstream audience.
3) The minnows – and some of the bigger teams – must play together more often to help the grow and compete. The more memorable games in the world cup involved teams such as Scotland, Italy and the USA. A restructured and stronger RLIF must emerge from this tournament with the will, ambition and ideas to take the international game to the next level. This tournament was far removed from the shambles of 2000, but we cannot sit back and rest. In order for the RLIF to move forward a coherent and constructive dialogue involving the RFL and NRL chiefs must emerge. This requires a centralised and well constructed calendar which provides opportunities for international competition. To do this players need to be free to travel the globe to represent their teams. In my opinion, to achieve this the game’s major selling point – State-of-Origin – needs to move to consecutive Saturday nights to accommodate other countries having meaningful contests. Having this contest on consecutive weeks would allow a prominent international block to emerge. I also feel this would add to the value of the NRL. At present, the weeks which are in between or following Origin fixtures seem disjointed and almost meaningless. Whatever happens, the minnows need the time and space to allow their players to feature in more games.
4) On that note, it was nice to see the rugby league family having a constructive dialogue about games. Too often we are guilty of arguing across each other. This is certainly something we need to embrace if the game is to continue to progress in both hemispheres. I don’t think the game has any enemies beyond its own borders. Too often we are our own worst enemy – see point one about criticisms surrounding eligibility rules – running the game down. We are fortunate to feel a part of a wonderful sport, and for it to compete we have to shout that from the rooftops as often as we get chance.
5) England must start to produce confident playmakers if they are to progress. This a very Anglocentric point-of-view, but it could apply to other nations too. We need to produce more half-backs and players with skill and control and the three-quarter line. If we focus on the halves for a moment, England’s team had a weaker half-back pairing than Scotland for most of the tournament. How do we move forwards? It’s all in the coaching and knowledge transfer. We need to employ Australian coaches and use these at the academy level to help produce the players. I know coaches go over to Australia to gain experience – as with the current England academy coach John Winder – so maybe we’ll some fruits from that in the near future. However, I think it would make a statement if England were to make a big appointment in that area. It’s never popular appointing Antipodean coaches, but if we don’t produce something then we seek someone who does and glean those skills.