In terrible news today out of France, the French Rugby League Federation has pulled out of hosting for the 2025 Rugby League World Cup.

This follows pressure from a reconstituted French government under President Emmanuel Macron to provide financial guarantees for the tournament and continued reductions in Federal government funding (following on from the previous cuts to tournament funding already announced by the French government in February 2023).

This raises all sorts of questions about this tournament and the broader context of international rugby league.

Principally among them, why has rugby league as a sport failed to reorganise the international game (which had traditionally been at the pinnacle of the sport) following the disaster of the Super League War (SLW) in the mid-1990s?

Following this attempted media takeover which threatened the fabric of the game worldwide, both countries featuring a major domestic competition (i.e. England and Australia) focused exclusively on rebuilding their domestic structures, while completely failing to reinstate the infrastructure that had supported the international game for well over 90 years.

Is it any wonder that international rugby league has been allowed to wither on the vine since, seemingly lurching from one disorganised and unplanned event to another, without any proper overarching timetable or sense of purpose?

The importance of Australia's (read the NRL's) apparent total disinterest in international rugby league cannot be understated in the context of this decision.

Of course, this disinterest aids Australia, whose international records continue to grow while other teams cannot play them in any sort of contest for the game's existing trophies (the rugby league Ashes haven't been competed for in 20 years as but one example).

One of the principal funders of the game in Australia, News Corporation, have barely invested a single cent in international rugby league since the SLW, and again were found wanting here, having promised to contribute nothing to the proposed French RLWC in 2025. At times, it seems Australia (and its international sponsors) barely care what happens to the international game in 2023.

Why did the International Rugby League (IRL) fail to properly secure the French government funding which had previously been promised by (now former) French Prime Minister Jean Castex? Why was this apparent agreement not reduced to a binding legal document which could be used to enforce the IRL's rights to the promised government funding at any required time (such as this week)? Questions really only the French, Troy Grant and the IRL can answer.

Was the tournament always too early for France in 2025? I have previously suggested there may have been greater security in awarding France the 2029 RLWC – particularly as the ESL continues to debate the very nature of their featured competition (which may or may not guarantee the likes of Toulouse – as well as Catalans – a place at the top table of northern hemisphere club rugby league).

Certainly, any French RLWC side (and the tournament more broadly) needs the full support of both Catalans and Toulouse as the flagship clubs in French rugby league at this time. Anything less than a full commitment, almost certainly would relegate the French to “also ran” status in their own tournament. Extra time here might be useful.

The role played by the two recent floggings in games between the English and French men's and women's teams (both 64-0 shellackings against the French teams) needs to also be considered, particularly in the context of that lack of support from both English-based French clubs Catalans and Toulouse in refusing to release French players for these matches.

The lack of depth in French rugby league is such that the French national teams need the full support of the French club teams playing at the highest domestic levels. In the absence of such support, a difficult job becomes effectively impossible. Neither of these results would have looked good to outside parties, especially in the absence of proper explanations as to the unavailability of French players who would otherwise have been selected.

Certainly, domestic French politics played a role in this decision. The former Prime Minister under Macron, Jean Castex, was a Catalan and accordingly was extremely supportive of the RLWC being hosted by France in 2025. His replacement as Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, was born in Paris – a long way from the heartlands of rugby xiii in the south of the country. This change can't have assisted the French chances of hosting the RLWC in 2025.

Finally, given the history of rugby union attacking rugby league in France for over 100 years, can it be totally ruled out that rugby XV has not played some role (given its continued connectivity with French government) in this late change of heart? Why would rugby union in France, a sport which first began attempts to block rugby league being played in that country in the early 1920s and which has continued to do so until today, suddenly have a change of conscience and be fully supportive of a RLWC in that country?

Is it a mere coincidence that the rugby union World Cup will be played in France this year, with full government backing, and yet the smaller RLWC scheduled for two years hence needed to be stripped of government money, such that the tournament could not proceed in that country at all?

Is it probable that such a decision which clearly favours a politically strong sport (rugby union) which has attacked rugby league mercilessly for decades would occur completely in a vacuum uninfluenced by the historical context of the relations between the rugby codes in France?

While this unfortunate decision will have continued negative effects on rugby league in France, there is no doubt rugby league will survive there. Its history of resilience and dignity in the face of overwhelming oppression, principally from rugby union, will ensure that French rugby league will continue to fight another day.

In that context, the best decision the IRL can make now is to confirm the 2029/2030 RLWC for France and ensure the necessary government funding is properly locked away and fully guaranteed.

In the interim, there is one obvious choice for hosting the RLWC in 2025 (or perhaps 2026 if a decision is made to delay the tournament for a year to assist in reorganising it) and that country is New Zealand. The reasons for this are numerous:

  1. New Zealand has not hosted a RLWC Final since the sold-out Final of 1988 in Auckland – some 35 years ago.
  2. Since that time, New Zealand has grown as an international force, defeating Australia in the 2005 Tri Nations in the UK, the 2008 RLWC played in Australia, and the 2014 Four Nations played in Australia and New Zealand.
  3. The contribution of Kiwi players to the NRL over the last twenty-five years has been a major factor in the overall quality of the competition.
  4. New Zealand, through the Warriors, contributed enormously to the capacity to continue the NRL competition during COVID – and this would be properly recognised through awarding hosting rights to the RLWC to New Zealand in 2025/2026.
  5. New Zealand has never held a RLWC in its own right, or even a tournament where the major games were hosted in that country (previous shared World Cups between Australia and New Zealand have seen the major matches played in Australia). This is despite the fact that New Zealand actually introduced rugby league to Australia in 1907/1908, rather than the other way around.
  6. The RLWC represents a unique vehicle to play important rugby league matches all around New Zealand to encourage future development, particularly in centres such as Rotorua, Greymouth, the Waikato and Dunedin.
  7. New stadium construction in Christchurch can be utilised for important matches in a New Zealand-based RLWC. The same stadia as used in the rugby union World Cup in 2011 can largely be utilised by rugby league.
  8. The huge diasporas of the growing international rugby league forces of Samoa and Tonga are primarily located in the North Island of New Zealand (especially Auckland). Awarding the RLWC to New Zealand would allow these Polynesian populations to best support the tournament and maximise the possibility of these nations improving on their already impressive performances in the last two RLWCs (Tonga in 2017 and Samoa in 2021/22).
  9. A final based in Auckland (Eden Park as per 1988), would allow major games such as the semi-finals to be hosted by Sydney and Melbourne, while quarter finals could be staged in the likes of Wellington, Christchurch, Brisbane and Perth. Other games outside New Zealand could be played in 15,000-20,000 seat minimum stadia in heartland and non-heartland areas such as Port Moresby, Adelaide, Suva, Apia, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart, Newcastle, Townsville etc. This would also give rugby league a strong vehicle to further consolidate its growth in the Pacific more broadly.
  10. Awarding the tournament in 2025/26 to Australia would largely be a repeat of the previous RLWC tournaments held there in 2008 and 2017. Having New Zealand as host in 2025/26 would be overdue recognition of a significant contributor to the international game since 1907.

Locking the two RLWCs in for 2025/26 (New Zealand) and 2029/30 (France) represents the best of a (current) bad situation and may well see better results for international rugby league in any event.

The suggestion that the 2029 RLWC should be played in the USA and Canada always appeared rather optimistic to this writer, given the continued lack of proper organisation at domestic level in both countries. Peace and cooperation between domestic American rugby league organisations (which does not currently occur) would seem to be a prerequisite to any successful RLWC to be held there.

The changes proposed here would allow the USA and Canada greater time to prepare for any subsequent RLWC, something which would be highly desirable given the problems associated with the relatively short period of time France had been permitted to prepare for the now-defunct French RLWC in 2025.

It would also reward New Zealand for their current status in international rugby league and would permit the French to salvage something from this otherwise disastrous decision made out of France today.