The International Game

by Lyle Beaton

The continued griping among members of the rugby league press, represented well by Paul Kent from News Limited, about the lack of value of international rugby league is surely either rooted in bigotry or misinformation. In either case, these represent inexcusable reasons for people with such prominent platforms to make such comments on the game.

Bigotry in holding to some outdated view about the international appeal of rugby league (the banal “two States of Australia, north of England and Auckland” diatribe of the likes of the most immature rugby union propagandists) or pure misinformation as to the quality of football on show.

Anyone watching the three international games at the Gold Coast on Saturday night – Junior Kangaroos v Junior Kiwis, Papua New Guinea v Fiji, Samoa v Tonga – could not doubt the quality of football involved. Certainly both former NRL coach John Lang and Shane Richardson of the NRL were highly impressed with the quality of football on offer – Lang commenting that if NRL coaches had to watch the excitement and quality of the Samoa v Tonga match they would “chew their fingers off…”

The irony is that the likes of Kent have so obviously failed to do even the most basic homework or have been living under a rock for the last decade. The days of Australia dominating all comers has long since shifted – the seismic event of the 2005 Tri-Nations Final, in which New Zealand buried Australia 24-0, seems to have bypassed Moore Park in Sydney.

New Zealand’s record in rugby league since 2005 cannot be ignored, even by the likes of Kent:

– Bill Kelly Trophy winner against Australia in 2003 and 2005;

– Tri-Nations win in 2005;

– World Cup winner 2008; and

– Four Nations wins in 2010 and 2014.

This has been achieved despite continued mismanagement of the international space by Australia, which still lords every conceivable advantage over their “junior” trans-Tasman adversaries.

Some critics point to the Anzac Test ambush as some sort of evidence to counter the above record of achievement. Rubbish. The Anzac Test has been a vehicle which should have been confined to history long ago. New Zealand has hosted the game once since 1999, a disgrace by any standard. The continued playing of the match in front of Australia’s home crowds fails even the most basic test of fairness.

Moreover, the scheduling of the match over the last two decades has always showed a total lack of understanding of international or New Zealand rugby league.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand has traditionally drawn players equally from the major European (European/English Super League) and Australian competitions. While a shift in favour of the latter has occurred more recently, for many years the Anzac Test has forced the Kiwis to choose from only approximately half of their available playing options – unlike Australia (who had full access to their players from the NRL).*

Add to this the at times farcical non-availability of New Zealand players over the years due to the refusal of their Australian clubs to release them – Matt Utai at Canterbury represents one of the very best examples, although SBW at both Canterbury/Roosters made a special talent at it in more recent seasons – and the playing field in this particular Test has been tilted towards Australia for decades. That it has been allowed to continue is an indictment on the desperation of Australian rugby league to hold onto a position at the top of the world rugby league tree.

Add again to this Australia’s more recent tendencies to pressure dual eligible players to choose Australia over New Zealand (principally to access Origin), and the situation has been distorted further. This despite Australia having access to a base of over 1 million rugby league participants in contrast to the much more modest playing bases of the likes of the Pacific nations of PNG, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji (all of whom have been similarly pillaged in recent years by Australian selectors).

Add even further the childish attitude towards neutral referees by Australia which remains at odds with the rest of the rugby league playing world – witness the debacle of the disallowed try for England in last year’s Four Nations clash with Australia.

This evidence is so overwhelming that only a bigot or some peddling misinformation could mistake it for what it is.

Australian rugby league needs to decide what it wants – an international game that is fully supported and allowed to organically develop alternative bases of power based purely on the quality of player available (what will always be a cyclical event) or to cling on, in some cases artificially, to its (now former) cherished position as the world’s number one rugby league power.

This also extends to the journalists that continue to live off the nutrients fed to them by the greatest game of all.

*Australia has made a conscious decision throughout history not to pick players playing in England (generally on the basis that these players were seen as playing in an inferior competition). A fact which ignores for instance the strength of the English game in the period 1946 – 1970 in particular.