Ever since the Rugby League World Cup in 2017, international rugby league has been all the craze. Countries such as Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and of course, Tonga wowed rugby league fans across the globe.
Now, that’s fine and lovely. Every four years we can get together and celebrate NRL stars discovering they have a Scottish grandmother so that they can be part of the action after missing the Australian selection.
Don’t get me wrong. Last year the RLWC was immensely entertaining, and it showcased there really is something there when it comes to a fanbase for international rugby league. The beauty that were the Tongan fans created a whole new way for fans of world sport to back their country on the international stage.
But there’s one fundamental problem with international rugby league, and if it stays the way it is, it’s hard to realistically give it a future.
The RLIF is the ‘Rugby League International Federation’. They’re ‘in charge’ of rugby league affairs worldwide, and officially, are the highest body in the rugby league world.
However, as recent meetings have proved, the NRL have no time for them. The NRL, being the biggest rugby league organisation on the planet, want to do things their way. Unfortunately, and perhaps justifiably, the NRL’s concerns are based within Australia, with a little thought turning to expansion in New Zealand.
This leaves the RLIF with very limited backing, and next to no funds. Essentially, the highest governing body of rugby league is pretty much powerless. As long as this is the case, there’s very little they can do in terms of expanding rugby league internationally.
The NRL feel that as long as their multi-billion dollar TV deals are coming in, and there’s interest within Australia in rugby league, all will be right. However in reality, AFL is not only quickly gaining ground on the NRL, but it could be argued that the NRL’s already been overtaken as Australia’s premier sport.
It’s all fine and lovely to encourage it in the pacific islands. Realistically, the talent that we’ve seen come from there, and the talent that doubtlessly is to come, is worth trying to keep around. But countries such as Tonga and Samoa with populations of sub-200,000 aren’t going to provide our game with a long-term international solution.
This is one of the many reasons I fully support the craze behind the Toronto Wolfpack. In the words of owner Eric Perez moments after having witnessed his first game of rugby league, “Woah, this is the most Canadian game not played in Canada”.
He’s not wrong. Having gone to Toronto myself to watch the Wolfpack play, I can tell you first hand the Canadians are sports mad.
However, these sports fans are used to watching the Toronto BlueJays (baseball) or Toronto FC (soccer). This is one of the reasons why the Wolfpack crowds have been so impressive since their inaugural game. The excitement levels in those sports don’t even come close to what you get in rugby league.
The Wolfpack aren’t going to slow down anytime soon either. Currently, they’re fighting for a Super League spot in the Super 8’s – Qualifiers, and are in a spot to make the ‘Million Pound Game’ between 4th and 5th to gain promotion to the Super League.
It’s not just Canada though. Rugby league exists all over the world in the last places you’d imagine it to be fighting for recognition in. After all, when a bunch of English guys got together to establish rugby league in the George Hotel in Huddersfield, the last thing on their minds was that it’d have become the national sport of Papua New Guinea.
For example, I’ve been a match official in the Netherlands Rugby League competition for the past three years. Yes, there’s a proper comp even in Holland. It took people putting a whole lot of time and effort to get it started up, but now in what will be the league’s 4th season, we’re looking at becoming a six-team comp, which is getting serious.
We’ve got hundreds of Dutch players with absolutely no rugby league background watching our game and through eventually playing it, calling rugby league their sport.
These guys will watch NRL week in week out because they love the game. They show up to watch their mates team play whilst wearing their Warriors or Rabbitohs jerseys. They go home talking about THAT try Latrell Mitchell scored over the weekend, and that Josh Addo-Carr would have nothing on them in a footrace.
These guys have grown up in a soccer-mad country who couldn’t tell you the difference between rugby league and American football. But through simple exposure to our game, they’ve fallen in love with a sport that’s unheard of where they’re from.
That’s not all however. The Netherlands are at only 18th in the European rugby league rankings. Even Ukraine who still are only ranked 14th have multiple divisions, and a large junior system for all kinds of ages.
In the end though, it all comes back to aforementioned ‘fundamental problem’. Funding. These leagues cannot last forever off their own steam. Sure, sponsorship deals and player entry fees help, but any organization needs increasing income in order to keep itself afloat when growing.
At the moment, the required funds simply aren’t there. If you want to talk about growing the game on the international stage, that’s where you’re going to do it, not just in our little pacific region.
We have the best product in the sporting world, and it has the potential to become the biggest product in the sporting world. All it takes, is showing the world. Getting our game on the screens. Showing the world that there isn’t a sport on earth that matches the skill, athleticism and excitement of rugby league.
So, next time you hear the term ‘International rugby league’, think more of it than simply our little corner of the earth. Remember, there are people all over the rest of the world too, that call our game their game.