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Will rugby league snatch defeat from the jaws of victory …. again?

Steve Mascord

Historian Tony Collins argues rugby league is better placed than most sports to capitalise on the digital revolution – but will it’s cultural and commercial flaws collude to hold it back?

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Promotional material for the planned Test between New Zealand and England in Denver, USA.

You wouldn’t call them headlines. They are down-page news stories. But at least they are in the paper, where 10 years ago they would not have been.

I can remember the first time I saw Tonga play Samoa in rugby league. It was 2006 at Campbelltown Stadium; Feleti Mateo had just come back from his stint with London Broncos.

When the two sides got in each other’s faces during their pre-match rituals, we didn’t know what they were called and we’d never seen it before. That’s myself and the other 900 people present.

11 years later, Tonga beat New Zealand to make the World Cup semi-finals – where they were joined by Fiji who have now made it to the final four three consecutive times.

Things have come a long way … but then they haven’t.

Now to those headlines. In the immediate aftermath of the success of tier two nations at the World Cup, Fiji players threatened a strike, Lebanon players threatened a strike while Tonga and Samoa initially baulked at having to go back to Campbelltown this coming June.

New Zealand and England seem to have struck the jackpot by being invited to play in Denver’s Sports Authority Field with the backing of the NFL’s Broncos.

But the NRL clubs resisted this for months and are still grumbling. They didn’t think teams would want to travel overseas for internationals!

There are two competing causal aspects to this apparent cluster-youknowwhat.

One is the old rugby league default position of “what’s in it for me?”; that goes back to 1895 and the George Hotel. The Fijian players argued they were due payments and the Rugby League International Federation has intervened to make sure they are paid.

The Lebanese players seemed more vague, citing only a “lack of trust”. There are whispers of defamation proceedings in response to how this curious dispute has been reported in Australia.

Tonga know that if they played New Zealand three times each year, it would be the Shakey Isles’ answer to Origin. It’s about money – but not necessarily for the players. The Tongan Rugby League doesn’t have too many paʻanga in the bank and what they saw in New Zealand showed they could, and should, have a lot more.

Samoa coach Matt Parish seems unhappy about the level of support from just about everywhere to just about everyone.

So that’s one side of the argument. Rebellion is in the blood. It’s a working class game. You have amateur officials administering teams full of professionals who are used to a certain level of sports medicine and accommodation and remuneration and – as colleague Robert Burgin pointed out – they are arguing over nickels and pennies.

But the other side of the argument is: why should they just be nickels and pennies?

The RLIF has just advertised for two new general managers, one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere.

That will take the international governing body’s total number of employees to a grand total of three.

Is it any wonder there’s no money, or power, in the international game?

In RLIF speak, Test series are “bilateral” games. That means the countries involved are just left to organise them. The RLIF only gets money from World Cups and the much-vaunted second property, a Nines World Cup, has attracted only luke warm interest from potential partners so far.

Plenty of cynics believe the Nines idea is more to satisfy the Collective Bargaining Agreement in Australia by minimising the wear and tear on NRL players than actually developing the international game.

So there’s our perfect storm: argumentative players and domestic officials and one hand and on the other an under-resourced international federation at the mercy of cashed up, self interested clubs.

But despite all this, and as I said at the start of this column, the arc of the game’s history is bending towards expansion and globalisation – even if incrementally.

It has to. Renowned rugby historian Tony Collins says the digital revolution, like newspapers, radio and television, can and will rearrange the balance of power between sports worldwide.

“We’re now in a position where the prospects for the game, if the opportunities are taken, are brighter than they’ve been for decades,” Collins – whose got a great new podcast called Rugby Reloaded – says.

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©Rugby Reloaded

“You can’t tell because you’re in the middle of it, so it’s hard to get an objective view.

“But I think sport, at the moment, is undergoing a revolution.

“The ease with which you can travel between continents thanks to low cost flights, the ease with which you can communicate across continents thanks to the internet and the way sport can be seen all over the world thanks to digital television really changes the scenario around the world for sport.

“When modern sport first emerged, it emerged at the same time as newspapers. Then you get the radio in the 1920s and 1930s and the same thing happens – radio publicises sport, sport provides the content.

“Despite the obvious weaknesses that the game has, it’s actually in a very strong position to take advantage of the big changes that are taking place now because we are both a mass spectator sport but we’re a small mass spectator sport.

“Things can change quite quickly in rugby league in a way that they can’t in soccer – it’s just a huge juggernaut – and to some extent, in a way they can’t in rugby union because rugby union’s very tightly bound with tradition.

“So the opportunities we’ve got, with the Wolfpack and a World Cup in the States, the possibility of other franchises, the way people are now considering Perth playing in a different comp than the Australian one…

“We can do things that other sports can’t because we’re small and manoeuvrable and still have that mass spectator sport image.

“We don’t have all those guys in blazers, the rampant tradition.

“We’re in this fantastically exciting period – if we take the opportunities.”

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