BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 02: David Klemmer of the Kangaroos looks on before the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Final between the Australian Kangaroos and England at Suncorp Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

More and more it appears the real reason for the continued attacks on the 2021 Rugby League World Cup by the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Leagues (read, NRL) is an attempt to take control of international rugby league and to subvert, and ultimately absorb, the functions of the very body set up with the charter to protect the international game, the International Rugby League (IRL).

The IRL functions as a governing body for the sport worldwide, in the same way as do bodies like FIFA (in soccer), the ICC (in cricket) and World Rugby (in rugby union). The IRL’s charter is to organise international competitions, like the Rugby League World Cup, and to facilitate the growth of rugby league around the world. Countries other than Australia and New Zealand have direct involvement in the IRL.

Bodies like the NRL and Super League in Europe are meant to function underneath the umbrella of the IRL to ensure that commercial imperatives do not take over what is in the best interests of the game of rugby league worldwide.

The NRL, it seems, based on recent evidence referred to here, seeks to remove that astute safeguard and unilaterally take over the running of rugby league worldwide.

Seemingly, part of the tactics to do so are to ruin the most organised and potentially best World Cup in the history of rugby league - the one organised for England this October and November.

As the World Cup is the primary source of funding for the IRL, the NRL appears to wish to devalue the international product in such a way as to more easily facilitate a hostile takeover of the IRL. What damaging impact this has on rugby league worldwide seems an irrelevant consideration for the NRL at present.

The NRL has put forward two primary reasons for Australia and New Zealand not attending the World Cup this year - safety (COVID) and player welfare (the need for rest).

The safety aspect has been comprehensively debunked previously. The World Cup organisers this week released a full breakdown of the extensive, anticipated biosecurity measures in place for the tournament.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 25: A general view during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Semi Final match between Tonga and England at Mt Smart Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Rugby League Players’ Association in Australia has stated that the Australian and New Zealand withdrawal from the World Cup on the basis of perceived safety concerns is “premature” and that the World Cup organisers are involved in an ongoing dialogue with the players and their representative (the RLPA) around this issue.

Clint Newton, Head of the RLPA, recently told this writer that biosecurity measures were not fixed and finalised but were in fact at a “draft stage” of further consultation and review.

Considering these safety matters are still in a state of flux at the time of writing, it is essentially impossible for the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Leagues to rely on them as a valid basis for withdrawal from the tournament, at the time the decision was communicated to the organisers on 22 July 2021 (with allegedly four minutes notice prior to communicating with the press).

The “best” that has been produced in response to the information from the World Cup organisers is a claim in one of the NRL's principal media partners, The Daily Telegraph, that “all unvaccinated players attending the tournament are likely to catch COVID”. This article effectively added little new information to a document which was drafted prior to the decision to withdraw.

It hasn't been publicly explained how this is expected to occur when players are scheduled to be bubbled in the UK during the World Cup and are likely to be vaccinated well beforehand due to NRL requirements.

It is in fact difficult to envisage what else World Cup organisers could do to convince the Australian and New Zealand teams to attend the tournament. World Cup organisers have already agreed to pick the players up on secured air flights, bubble them during the tournament, fly them back and quarantine them on return.

Any non-vaccinated players would be offered vaccination prior to departure from the southern hemisphere. The cost of all of this was to be covered by the World Cup organisers, so that the expenditure by the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Leagues was negligible.

The second excuse for withdrawal is that of player welfare and the need for rest. Australia already used this excuse last year to cancel the proposed 2020 Kangaroo tour to England.

The NRL basically re-scheduled the State of Origin series in preference over international football following the 2020 Grand Final. This increasingly looks like a practice run for this year.

The NRL has adopted the same tactics in 2021 by shifting the NRLW season to October, so that it now directly conflicts with the timing of the Women’s World Cup, which was to be played concurrently in the UK in October and November with the Men’s and Wheelchair World Cups.

The NRL’s supposed preference is for the players to have one year off in four from end of year representative football. However, this will be the second straight year in which that international football has been scrubbed from the year’s program of rugby league in Australia and New Zealand.

More and more it appears as though the NRL’s real preference is to play international football once every four years and have three years off in each cycle. This is the complete opposite of what had previously been agreed at international level.

It should be remembered that the Australian Kangaroos have played a mere four Tests since the end of the 2017 World Cup in Australasia. In those Tests, they have a winning percentage of only 50% - having lost to both New Zealand and Tonga.

The World Cup Final in 2017 against England turned on a Josh Dugan ankle-tap on Kallum Watkins late in the game which would have probably levelled the scores at 6-6 with only minutes to play.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MAY 05: Josh Dugan of the Kangaroos looks dejected as he leaves the field with an injury during the ANZAC Test match between the Australian Kangaroos and the New Zealand Kiwis at GIO Stadium on May 5, 2017 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In the end, the Kangaroos 6-0 victory over England was a game which was played throughout on a veritable knife edge. It seems Australia’s increasing reluctance to play international football has coincided with a downturn in fortunes from the days when Australia did more clearly dominate all-comers (essentially pre-2005).

The 2021 World Cup, as originally planned and conceived, effectively meant an extra five weeks of football for the players from the southern hemisphere, and even less time away for players from those teams that didn’t venture past the Semi-Finals and Final of the tournament.

In reality, this would have had a minor impact on the players. The Melbourne Storm have shown on numerous occasions in previous years that pre-season training schedules for international players can be adjusted on an individual basis.

This was regularly done for the likes of Billy Slater and Cameron Smith throughout their lengthy NRL careers. Melbourne remains the benchmark in the NRL; if they are able to make such adjustments, so can every other NRL club.

The NRL has shown enough agility in scheduling over the last two years to demonstrate that accommodating the World Cup would not have been a problem if the will to do so was present. That it is clearly lacking has been comprehensively demonstrated by the active misinformation campaign that has been waged against the tournament.

The NRL appears in this instance to have conceded the role of public defender of their position to Phil Gould, who also serves as a Channel 9 television commentator. Gould is of course completely compromised by numerous conflicts of interest in even commenting on the tournament objectively.

He has been employed by Nine for around 30 years - Nine have shown absolutely no interest in purchasing the Australian free-to-air television rights to the World Cup (the 2017 World Cup was televised by their main FTA television rival, Seven), while maintaining those rights for both NRL and State of Origin.

Gould is also extremely close to clubs such as the Roosters and Penrith, both of whom would have been called on to release players for the World Cup. Penrith’s coach Ivan Cleary, in particular, has been outspoken about his direct opposition to his players participating in the World Cup. This conveniently mirrors the official NRL position.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 17: Panthers coach Ivan Cleary speaks to the media after the round 10 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the New Zealand Warriors at Panthers Stadium on May 17, 2019 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The NRL’s intentions with respect to the IRL seem to be made clear by Gould’s recent tweets on the subject. While Gould claims not to have been involved in the decision to withdraw from the World Cup, he:

  • Actively advocated for a withdrawal prior to the decision being made;
  • Immediately reported the decision to withdraw (with evident satisfaction);
  • Defended the decision that was made; and
  • Appeared to gloat about the impact of the withdrawal and how that would demonstrate that the NRL is best placed to run international rugby league.

If Gould does not speak for the NRL, they have allowed him 12 consecutive days to sound off unchecked about the tournament without making it clear that he does not.

Relevant tweets on this subject from Gould’s own, publicly available, Twitter account follow.

This tweet seems to indicate a premeditated attempt to damage the World Cup as a result of the IRL’s perceived failures in following NRL wishes.

In this tweet, Gould articulates his desire for the NRL to control international rugby league by saying “When NRL is running world rugby league, (as it should)…”.

This tweet seemingly directly expresses the desire for the NRL to take over the IRL’s direct functions - “IRL telling the NRL what to do is like the tail wagging the dog.”

By the time of this 24 July tweet, Gould seems to be indicating that the players' attendance at the tournament will be up to the individuals themselves - “Once conditions of travel, quarantine, schedules and vaccinations were explained, many opted out. Some may go.”

This directly contradicts the RLPA which has said that these issues continue to be worked through even at the present date. Although the tweet itself is, typically, internally inconsistent, it also suggests players have not been afforded all of the necessary safety information to make an informed decision as they have already previously “opted out”.

Here Gould seems to be indicating the potential for rescheduling the NRL season so as to accommodate the major competitions of other sports, while simultaneously refusing to countenance the same in relation to the 2021 World Cup in rugby league itself! Remarkable.

Gould here directly and unambiguously states that “World rugby league would be a lot better off”, being run by the NRL over the IRL.

Again, Gould is actively advocating for the NRL to take over the running of international rugby league from the IRL. His comment ignores the fact that the IRL had previously worked on creating an eight-year schedule of international football itself, the key part of which was to lock the World Cup into a proper four-yearly cycle. Gould’s advocacy to move the World Cup to 2022 (without explaining in any way how this would be done) remains completely oblivious of this fact.

This Gould tweet directly states that the NRL and Peter V’landys have sought to plan their own eight-year international calendar (of which no details have been made public) - a clear indication of a determination to take over international rugby league from the IRL. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of the extensive planning engaged in by the IRL over the last decade or so.

This tweet clearly indicates that at least part of the decision to withdraw is based on an inconvenience of two weeks to the start of the NRL season.

This tweet makes the NRL’s power play, as articulated by Gould, obvious. It follows that the scandalous timing of the withdrawal was designed to cause maximum damage to rugby league’s major international tournament, the World Cup, in 2021.

Further confirmation of the takeover agenda is contained here - “We will provide you with some great international football for you to watch.” Gould is clearly talking about someone else, unless he has decided to launch his own rugby league Globe Trotters team in the near future.

The confusion in – and contradictory nature of – this tweeted response speaks for itself.

In fact, it is Gould here who shows a complete lack of understanding. The claim that the NRL has “no charter for international RL” is plainly incorrect.

When Australia organised the 2017 World Cup in Australasia, much of the organisation for the tournament was in fact carried out by people who also worked at the NRL. Rather than employ completely separate people to prepare for and run the World Cup, the NRL seconded many of its own people to carry out a dual role, supplemented by some outside hirings.

Accordingly, the NRL had the lead and major role in organising the 2017 World Cup, which was disastrous in many ways. Aggregate and average crowds were poor, there was a total lack of engagement with regular NRL fans, and the World Cup Final could only attract just over 40,000 spectators to Lang Park (52,500 capacity).

In many ways, the organic growth of Tonga as a rugby league nation since 2017 (primarily established through player power rather than the NRL - see Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo - both of whom had been sought by the “bigger” nations Australia and New Zealand, but elected instead to play for Tonga) saved this World Cup from the disasters imposed on it by its largely NRL organisers.

Further, the NRL has seemingly worked against international rugby league for a number of years now. Examples are rife - the NRL’s appalling attitude to the Denver, USA Test between England and New Zealand (2018); the disbanding of the Four Nations tournament (after 2016); and the failure to reinstate Kangaroos and Lions tours to each hemisphere (see the cancelled 2020 Kangaroos tour to the UK) among them.

To place the international game solely in the hands of a body which appears to have actively shown contempt for it over the last five or so years would be an absolute fool’s folly.

Much of this seems to have eluded Gould, the self-appointed NRL public mouthpiece for the withdrawal from this year’s World Cup.

Gould again doubles down on his claim that the NRL has no charter in relation to international rugby league, yet fails to explain how they were primarily responsible for organising the last (disappointing) World Cup in Australasia in 2017.

The available evidence suggests that the NRL cannot be trusted to govern international rugby league without favouring Australia over other competing nations. I have previously written about the many levers used by Australia to maintain its hegemony in world rugby league and many of these have come to pass in the form of World Cup attacks mounted by the NRL against the IRL even since that article was published at the start of July. The predictability of some of this conduct is only matched by its treachery.

The NRL's direct attacks on the 2021 World Cup - slated to be the best in the history of the tournament prior to the Australian and New Zealand withdrawal - demonstrate that it does not have the necessary democratic desire or capacity to run world rugby league for the benefit of all competing countries.

If it did, the NRL would have no problem with their clubs releasing players to play for nations other than Australia and New Zealand at this World Cup. That this is not occurring speaks volumes for the dangers in the NRL removing the checks and balances inherent in the IRL structure. It appears that inevitably, world rugby league under the NRL would be run for the benefit of the NRL first and residual benefits to the world game would only be secondary to the desired aim to control rugby league world-wide.

It has been confirmed by the RLPA that NRL contracts require clubs to release their players for international football. If the NRL seeks to block any player from nations other than Australia and New Zealand competing at the World Cup, the World Cup organisers and the IRL could potentially seek legal redress against the NRL or clubs for what would be highly transparent attempts to damage the World Cup, and in turn, the IRL and world rugby league.

The NRL’s attempts to advocate for rugby league to be involved in the 2032 Olympic Games, to be held in a city which lives and breathes rugby league, Brisbane, Queensland, appear ludicrous when it cannot even confirm the proper participation of players in rugby league’s own World Cup this year.

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The RLPA, IRL and World Cup organisers all appear to be still prepared to work through the proper safety requirements around the World Cup to ensure it proceeds as originally planned. They should continue to do so.

The NRL, on the other hand, should start engaging with those bodies to ensure proper participation in the World Cup, rather than spending their time running a propaganda campaign designed to undermine it.

The NRL’s media partners - News Corporation and Nine (now including Fairfax Media) - which together constitute about 90% of Australia’s press, have assisted the NRL in failing to properly debate the egregious attempts to attack a 67-year-old rugby league international institution, the World Cup. What this says about media ownership and democracy in Australia is self-evident.

To place the reins of international rugby league in the hands of the NRL is to invite further disasters in addition to the shameful one we are currently living through in respect of the World Cup.