How healthy is international Rugby League?

The Guardian newspaper published an article yesterday on its website entitled ‘Rugby league’s international failure is spectacular’.
It was written by an Australian journalist, Nick Tedeschi, a freelance writer whose frustration with the state of international Rugby League was plain for everyone to see.
“Rugby league and its devotion to the international game has always promised big and nearly always under-delivered,” he writes.
“If the game truly hopes to grow – as those in charge of the purse strings and the big statements often likes to preach – it must be through establishing, nurturing, promoting and investing in the sport around the world.”
And who could argue with those assertions.
Tedeschi argues that the club game and State of Origin exert an unhealthy dominance in Rugby League, which has thrown away its greatest inheritance – the Ashes tours.
“An Ashes series was once the most compelling event the sport had to offer, central to the game’s lore, the most fantastic and dramatic and revered for players and fans alike,” he writes, citing several examples of great deeds from past Ashes encounters, and throwing in the French tours to Australia in the 1950s as further examples of what has been lost.
“The 1950s and 1960s were heady days for internationals. There was no greater spectacle, no greater honour. The pioneering spirit of the game saw inroads made into South Africa and Papua New Guinea and Wales. A World Cup was established. Attempts were made to spread the Gospel of the Game to the United States. Expansion and the riches it would bring was the dream of rugby league.”
Since then, however, he claims that the international game has been marginalised and in particular nothing has been done recently to build on the success of the World Cup in 2013., and we see players like Sam Burgess, Sonny Bill Williams and Jarryd Hayne turning their backs on Rugby League to head off to other football codes.
It’s hard to dispute much of what Teseschi writes. Unfortunately our administrators have not prioritised the development of the international game, and we (and they) are now paying the price for that indifference as other sports have built up their international profiles.
And yet I have to ask whether Tedeschi is painting too negative a picture.
It’s easy to look at the past with rose-coloured spectacles.
But it isn’t always wise to do so.
In 1971, for example, New Zealand toured Great Britain and attracted derisory crowds for their three Test matches. For example, only 3,764 people turned up for the first Test at Salford. That hardly suggests that international Rugby League was in the best of health in those days.
Just over 40 years later we played the Kiwis in a World Cup semi-final at Wembley and drew 67,545 spectators.
Tomorrow the Kiwis will play Australia at Suncorp Stadium in a double-header alongside England and Samoa. Earlier this week the NRL revealed that 44,000 tickets had been pre-sold. If that is true the event will probably draw a bigger crowd than last Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup rugby union game between Australia and New Zealand, which drew a little over 45,000 spectators to the game that is probably the biggest in the annual rugby union international calendar.
So with little publicity, and lots of negative articles, including Queensland coach Mal Meninga saying the Four Nations should have been cancelled, more people look as though they are going to turn up for an international Rugby League event than for the prime event in the rugby union calendar.
Tedeschi’s article was headlined ‘Rugby league’s international failure is spectacular’.
And indeed, if that is failure, it really is spectacular, but not perhaps in the way that the Guardian sub-editors understand the meaning of the word.
I hope that similar crowds will be attracted for the other Four Nations games.
But I do think that Tedeschi’s criticisms are not quite as valid now as they might have been a few years ago.
After all, we now have a four-yearly cycle of World Cups planned for the future, which we have never had before.
We have the Pacific Island nations rising to challenge the big three of Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand, to such an extent that English supporters are worried about whether we will beat the Samoans in Brisbane tomorrow.
In the old days there were really only two major Rugby League nations – Great Britain and Australia. The Ashes tours were the State of Origin of their day.
Sadly, they are unlikely to return.
But I would rather us celebrate what we have, than lament what we don’t have.
There is one vital thing that our administrators could do, however.
Nigel Wood was appointed as the Chairman of the Rugby League International Federation earlier this year, and he has said that he wants to develop the international game far beyond where it currently finds itself.
More power to his elbow.
I hope he will be able to somehow persuade the Australians that international Rugby League is indeed performing way below its potential. That is partly because the Australians are so dominant, but also because our international game is viewed as an add-on at the end of the season that burnt-out players often have to miss as they undergo repairs to various injuries.
And we can hardly blame club coaches for taking that attitude. We have already seen how players who pull out of the international game, like Jamie Peacock, are able to extend their careers by doing so.
The only long term solution to the problem is to shorten the club season and to insert the international season into the regular club season.
That is what every other sport does, and it seems to work for them.
What’s so different about Rugby League?
The Australians already do it with State of Origin.
We simply need to persuade them to treat the international game in the same way, so that it can be seen as an integral part of the season, so gaining the attention, the audiences and the commercial support that it surely deserves.

Martyn Sadler is the editor of Rugby League Express and writes his Talking Rugby League column every Monday morning in the newspaper.