Rugby League’s International Future


With the Four Nations about to start this weekend, Martyn Sadler, the editor of Rugby League Express, shares his fantasy about how international Rugby League competitions could lead the growth of the game worldwide.

This is an amended version of an article that originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Rugby League World magazine

All my life I’ve been convinced that Rugby League could have almost unbounded appeal to people who are genuinely interested in high-quality, competitive team sports.

But so often it has frustratingly failed to realise its potential.

Expansion of the professional game at the highest level has been difficult to sustain, although not impossible. Check out the Melbourne Storm for an example of how Rugby League can expand successfully into a new market.

But there are plenty of examples of the professional game failing to take hold at the highest level, with London and Paris perhaps the clearest ones.

Failure to grow

So an obvious question arises. Could I be wrong? Is Rugby League less attractive than I think it is when compared to other major spectator sports that are also eager to expand?

Or is there some other reason why the game has failed to grow around the world in the way that other football codes, such as association football or rugby union, have done?

After all, Rugby League encapsulates everything that great sport should be, making huge physical and intellectual demands on its players while making great emotional demands on those of us who support our club or country.

Other sports have their appeal, and we have seen in the Olympic Games earlier this year the thrill of genuine excellence, whether on the track, in the pool, on the pitch, in the ring or in the velodrome.

But when watching the Olympics there is one thing that always strikes me above all others.

International appeal

The Olympics capture our attention because of their internationalism. Olympic sportsmen and women are representing their countries, and that’s what grabs us, to the point that the Olympics will stimulate our interest in sports that normally we might not dream of watching.

You would struggle ever to find me watching a swimming race. And yet who wouldn’t be captivated by the gold medal winning performance in Rio of Adam Peaty, who broke his own world record in his victorious swim?

The sports that have succeeded in crossing international boundaries have recognised that competition between nations is what turns on spectators more than anything else.

The best example is rugby union.

I recently attended a lecture by the Brett Gosper, the chief executive of rugby union’s irritatingly named international governing body ‘World Rugby’.

Gosper gave a talk that was full of statistics about how rugby union has expanded into new markets in recent years. The key statistic was that participation in that sport has doubled to 7.73 million since 2009. And with Rugby Sevens now featuring in the Olympic Games and Japan hosting rugby union’s first World Cup in Asia in 2019, the prospects look very bright for even more growth.

Gosper explicitly contrasted his sport with Rugby League, identifying as the main difference between the two codes their desire to expand compared to our contentment with the status quo.

NRL insularity

Of course that comparison isn’t entirely fair. You only have to look at Toronto Wolfpack’s entry into League 1 next year to see that the flame of expansion still flickers brightly in the northern hemisphere. But, bearing in mind that Gosper is an Australian, the NRL’s unwillingness to consider any further expansion in the foreseeable future, and its lack of enthusiasm for international competition, as seen with the NRL clubs’ reluctance to participate in the World Club Series, no doubt feeds his view of our sport.

The NRL is indeed the biggest obstacle to internationalism in Rugby League. To put it bluntly the NRL competition and State of Origin, excellent though they both are, occupy too much space. They almost crowd out international Rugby League.

If we are going to develop international Rugby League we have to find the space for international fixtures during the Rugby League season. That means cutting down the length of the club seasons in both Europe and Australasia.

Maybe I am now getting into the realms of fantasy, hoping for something that will never happen.

But let’s say our esteemed leaders in the NRL and the RFL one day decided that they would share my vision of the way forward, and that they would like to boost international competition.

A Six Nations structure

How could they do it?

They could do it by learning from our greatest rivals.

The most financially rewarding international competition in the world is rugby union’s Six Nations tournament, which involves each nation playing five matches.

We could replicate that tournament in both the northern and southern hemispheres while creating a structure that would give great incentives to developing Rugby League nations.

For example, in the Northern Hemisphere the six highest ranked Rugby League nations are England, France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the USA.

Why not have a Six Nations involving those teams over five successive weekends in June and July?

The one weakness of rugby union’s Six Nations is that it is a closed shop. But we wouldn’t need to follow that pattern. In the Northern Hemisphere we could have a secondary Six Nations involving, for example, Serbia, Italy, Canada, Russia, Jamaica and Lebanon, with the winner of that tournament replacing the bottom nation in the higher ranked tournament. The incentive to gain promotion and then remain in the major tournament would be huge.

In the Southern Hemisphere we could have another Six Nations tournament taking place at the same time involving New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Fiji, PNG and Tonga, with the bottom nation being replaced by either the Cook Islands or South Africa the following year. I would stipulate, however, that when players qualify for Australia or New Zealand and one of the South Pacific nations, that it’s the minor nation that gets first pick, so that a player like Semi Radradra would play for his native Fiji, not Australia.

And the same thing in the northern hemisphere. Let Ireland and Scotland, for example, have the first pick of players who qualify for them and also for England.

So that’s my (admittedly unrealistic) vision for international Rugby League. A defined and stable structure for international competition that would actively encourage development in some of the newer Rugby League nations.

Could it work? I’m certain it could.

Will it ever come about?

Don’t hold your breath!

Let me know on Twitter or on the website whether you agree with my vision and, if so, how best it could be achieved.