Page XIII: More or Less

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 440 (Dec 2017)

Wales coach John Kear, with characteristic honesty, declared in an interview down under that Australians regard the World Cup as a third tier tournament, two rungs below Origin and the NRL. He was widely criticised for those remarks, not so much the content but the timing of them. It was seen as giving a reluctant public another excuse to stay at home instead of turning out in force to support a tournament which has struggled to attract plentiful bums on seats.
But there’s nothing to gain from shooting the messenger. We have to be honest with ourselves and admit that for an audience weaned on State of Origin, a majority of World Cup games are going to be an incredibly tough sell.
That’s not an excuse to throw the towel in and just give up on the dream of developing the World Cup into something that will, one day, be the hottest ticket in town. It should be a call to action.
Rugby League has no choice but to continue doing the hard yards to develop the international game if it wants to significantly expand its audience beyond the relatively small domestic markets that currently sustain it.
Look beyond the empty seats and there are signs that genuine progress is being made.
When Fiji made their World Cup debut in 1995, they were flogged by Australia and England and didn’t progress from their group. 22 years later, they have sensationally dumped the Kiwis out of the quarter finals to reach their third successive World Cup semi-final.
Although Tonga had a much livelier debut in the same tournament in 1995, they also failed to progress from the group stage, but now find themselves the most talked about team of 2017, reaching their first semi-final and playing in front of supporters who have redefined what it means to be passionate about your team.
Lebanon, on World Cup debut in 2000, criticised at the time for representing a nation with no domestic Rugby League infrastructure, really did inspire people back ‘home’ to pick up the ball and run with it. Now, although still heavily reliant on heritage players, their 2017 squad has included genuine home-grown talent given the chance to learn from the best. Their progress to the quarter-finals where they only fell to a two-point defeat to Tonga, has had members of the Lebanese government singing their praises.
Papua New Guinea we almost take for granted as a beacon of Rugby League that will burn forever brightly, but their performances in front of their own fans in Port Moresby have been a revelation and has added further fuel to the argument in favour of basing a new NRL side there. What a tantalising prospect that would be.
Elsewhere, the USA failed to match the heroics of 2013, but shied away from heritage players this time to blood a host of emerging young stars from the States who insist they have benefitted massively from the experience and will take what they have learned back home, to work harder and get better. They will host the tournament in eight years’ time, giving Rugby League an unprecedented opportunity to tap into a market that dwarves its existing base. It could be a transformative moment if the correct lessons are learned from 2017.
On these shores, aside from England who at time of writing have stuttered their way through to the semi-finals without ever hitting top form, the other home nations of Wales and Scotland have struggled badly. The latter saved their blushes with a gallant and unexpected draw against Samoa, but it cannot mask the lack of genuine development going on at grassroots.
There simply is no point in turning out an international side if it is not used as a vehicle for boosting interest in Rugby League in the nation it represents.
In contrast, Ireland have come on leaps and bounds under the tutelage of Mark Aston, who knows a thing or two about dogged commitment to a worthwhile project. The Irish were desperately unlucky to miss out on the quarter finals after winning two group games.
Aston and his Wales counterpart John Kear are calling for a Home Nations series as a matter of urgency, and they are both dead right. It won’t be an overnight sensation, but the biggest lesson of the World Cup is that Rugby League needs more internationals, not less.