Some in the international rugby league community, particularly those in England, seem concerned by the amount of hype surrounding the Rugby World Cup* (sic) being played out in the northern hemisphere. (Or at least they were prior to England rugby union being knocked out, which was greeted with a loud cheer in most of the rugby league world.)
On the contrary, the signs for rugby league are, as always, extremely encouraging.
The turgid nature of the football on display in almost ever game of the union tournament has been at contrast with the obvious quality we have been dished up in the NRL Finals series for instance. The Grand Final was merely the cherry on the sundae – a game which delivered the sort of intensity rugby union can continue to only dream of.
No wonder a diabolically poor performance from a deeply divided South Africa against a Japanese side laced with foreign born players was treated with such euphoria in union circles. It is no secret the black community, which makes up 90% of the South African population and has largely no interest in rugby union in favour of soccer, continue to seethe at rugby union’s palpable failure to integrate the sport into black South African life. Court action was brought by black political groups to try and prevent the Springboks even competing at the Rugby World Cup 2015. Rugby union remains as much a pillar of the Afrikaner population in South Africa as it ever was – perhaps even more so than when Nelson Mandela put on the Springbok jumper as a means of demonstrating that he was prepared to bury the hatchet even with rugby union, a plaything of the evil apartheid era that had imprisoned him unjustly for so long. The merits of the man know no bounds.
Is it any surprise that such division has produced what must still be seen as a somewhat suspicious result given the lack of development in the Japanese Super rugby and Rugby World Cup 2019 spaces prior to the game? Could a sport which includes in its history conspiring with, inter alia, the Nazi sympathising French Vichy government be prepared to engage in such underhand and reprehensible tactics for monetary advantage? A sport, rugby union, that gave up its pretence for existing in 1996 when it threw 100 years of (alleged) amateurism out the window to chase the dollar? No…surely not…
The fact that 53 points could be scored in the Wales/England rugby union match, with all of two tries recorded and 12 penalty goals, confirms yet again that rugby league’s scoring system is infinitely superior to that of union. Rugby league’s scoring system continues to properly reward try scoring and de-emphasise the importance of penalty and drop goals, whereas rugby union’s antiquated scoring system does the opposite even in 2015. Frequent debate abounds in union circles about the need for changes – again, the rational and logical approach was adopted long ago by rugby league; thus preventing union immediately adopting such a law change.
The Rugby League World Cup of 2013 maintained a try scoring average of over 8 tries per game. Even with floggings in the current union World Cup such as Australia (B)’s 11 try flogging of Uruguay, the union tournament won’t get within cooee of the Rugby League World Cup try scoring average. Enter the usual union diatribes about how tries don’t count for quality etc. etc. (shortly after they discuss their favourite union Tests, eg. 2000 All Blacks v Wallabies, which invariably contain a plethora of tries).
However, the most important sign from the current union world cup tournament has been how poorly the Pacific nations have performed relative to those same countries in the Rugby League World Cup. Without exception, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have been very poor in the current union World Cup.
In contrast, Fiji have played in the last two semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cups of 2008 and 2013, and Tonga v Samoa in 2015 (played mid-year at the Gold Coast) was one of the very best games of rugby league this year at any level, bar none.
In contrast to the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby league sides, which boast numerous household names in Australia, the sides competing at the union World Cup are largely a bunch of no names. No great surprise that a Samoan side able to call on the likes of Sam Kasiano is able to compete at a much higher level in test match rugby league than international rugby union.
There is now very little doubt rugby league is the dominant sport in the Pacific at this time.
Rugby league needs to expend proper levels of resources to consolidate domestic football structures in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga so as to allow them to continue to further develop as rugby league nations. Papua New Guinea, a nation of 8 million people (nearly double the population of New Zealand), remains rugby league mad as shown by consistent 15,000+ crowds in the second tier Queensland Cup competition this year.
All of these nations need proper financial support from a properly resourced and organised Rugby League International Federation (RLIF). They also need a proper planned international schedule, in advance, to permit development of players at the top level and to enable planning by the nations concerned into the future. With this, the continued development of rugby league in Niue (which celebrated a magnificent win over Cook Islands very recently), Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and the French protectorate of New Caledonia, added to the largely organic strength already existent in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, when fused with the dynamism of rugby league in Australasia, will mean rugby league will continue to grow as the major spectator sport of the Pacific for some time to come.
Elsewhere at the Rugby World Cup, the diabolical press reporting of Sam Burgess (especially in the English media, for example but by no means exclusively Paul Hayward of the UK Telegraph but increasingly also in Australia, see Paul Cully in the Sydney Morning Herald, another northern hemisphere writer) has left no doubt that the anti-rugby league bias within rugby union remains highly active, no surprise given the nature of administrative decisions made by a sport which has recently re-branded itself as “World Rugby” in a follow up to the same disgraceful use of the term “Rugby World Cup” since 1987. Both decisions show contemptuous regard for the proper use of the term “rugby” by both codes and the fact the Rugby League World Cup* pre-dates the union tournament by a third of a century. Leaving that aside, this must to some extent act as a deterrent (if properly identified in media) on rugby league players taking the same type of approaches from union in the future.
One of the many dirty secrets of union remains the extent to which rugby league continues to influence it as a sport in such fundamental ways – from the very timing of turning professional in 1995-1996; to the playing of leagues and World Cups (both rugby league devices originally contrary to the spirit of rugby union); through the obvious theft of rugby league intellectual property via too many players, (most especially) coaches and even referees to name, to the backgrounds of its own most cherished players, the David Campeses, Phillipe Sellas and Jonah Lomus of this world, all of who owe much of their “rugby” skills to their development as rugby league players early in their careers. Invariably such players have been pressured during their careers to depart from rugby league in favour of school based union teams – often in schools which have deliberately excluded rugby league as part of the curriculum in favour of union (see New Zealand and the GPS schools of Australia).
Overall, rugby league has very little to be concerned about on any proper analysis of the rugby union world cup. The lessons, if any, are that the game needs to support the tournament fully in the case of the Rugby League World Cup (something which does not currently occur) and that hype and money can generate interest where it otherwise does not exist (see for example the sale of RWC tickets in areas which have sparse if any interest in the union game – Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds as examples). Most other previous issues with the RLWC have fortunately been rectified – regularity of event timing most importantly – but one critical factor remains which is the need to properly formulate and administer eligibility international eligibility rules. If ever a situation was treated on an adhoc and arbitrary basis by rugby league, it is this one. The nation swapping and stacking of teams with eligible players by virtue of ancestry alone must stop in rugby league. This remains a damaging and perception altering issue when it comes to the RLWC.
An adoption of pragmatic but fair rules in this regard and some basic measures such as neutral referees, would leave the many opponents to rugby league’s world cup with little ammunition given the strong crowds and high quality football as played at the most recent tournament in 2013.
by Lyle Beaton