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Denver in the John?

Steve Mascord

With the NRL and RLIF locked in a war of words over the Denver Test, is it time for a change of approach in dealings with the insular southern hemisphere citadels?

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The scheduled Test between England and New Zealand is creating a stir in the sport ©Loverugbyleague/Gettyimages

A letter from the NRL, its clubs and the Rugby League Players Association saying they do not support the Great Britain-New Zealand Test in Denver next month was hardly a bombshell.

In other news, Donald Trump is not a member of Greenpeace and dogs don’t particularly like cats.

One could go into the sheer childishness of the letter, including the contention that although the clubs earlier claimed the match at the Sports Authority Field was a money grab, the RFL’s insistence that it’s not – which the clubs seemingly accept – proves they are right about the game being a bad idea anyway. They seem stunned there is an actual attempt to breach the American market without them – and ignorant of the fact the promoter has already been given the 2025 World Cup!

We could also comment on the arrogance of the NRL franchises for claiming some sort of veto over where the game is played, as if an international involving two foreign countries has anything to do with them.

But I realised some time ago that arguing about Denver is a sure recipe for a headache. I’m kind of over it. The only thing of substance in the letter was that the NRL would not punish any club which refused to release players this year and would not release anyone for the same fixture next year or the year after.

Which means we’ll be having the same headache-inducing debate for another 12 months.

Some solace can be taken from the fact the NRL, its clubs and Players Association seemed to take two months to draft a simple letter while England players jumped on the front foot immediately.

The fact that a similar mass declaration was not forthcoming from New Zealand stars suggests they have more to fear in the face of Australasian resistance to the game; the New Zealand Warriors vow to stand down those involved the following week could be interpreted as either admirable player welfare or a little intimidatory. The Kiwis bottomed out in so many ways last year and this sort of distraction is not going to encourage players and fans to rally around a rebuild.

If Tonga replace them in the Rugby League Challenge next year … wow, I’d love to see the clubs try to stop Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo getting on a plane. These are the sort of tactics the promoters can now entertain, thanks to the helpful forewarning of their enemies in Australia.

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The Sports Authority Field, Denver ©Tripadvisor

The England and New Zealand (or Tongan) players have 13 months to gird their loins for another administrative battle; the RFL and NZRL are smaller organisations who can act more quickly than the war-torn domestic Australian bureaucracy.

But how far should they go?

To me it seems a clear case of discrimination on grounds of nationality that Papuans, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans are being released to represent their countries on a weekend when Englishmen and New Zealanders are expressly forbidden. Surely it is challengeable in court.

The NRL’s response, then, would be to simply cancel the Pacific Tests.

And this is where we default in rugby league. While around the edges, we are quick to rebellion and discord, at the centre we still try to do things by consensus. We think of ourselves as strategic. Why fight so hard for one game, at the expense of two more?

But I can’t help but think that we are entering a period so important in the history of the game that we might be better off ripping and tearing and damning the consequences.

Withhold prize money from Australia in response to their governing body refusing to enforce RLIF rules regarding player releases. If last year’s World Cup monies have not been passed on, withhold the next one.

Take that legal action against clubs over apparent discrimination. Pick two full strength teams and make a big deal of players being pressured to drop out, one by one, by their clubs.

Play the game anyway, if necessary with no NRL players (we’re talking 2019 here). Cancel the British Lions Tour if the Aussies use that as a big stick.

Of course the problem is that the RLIF has an Australian chairman but allegedly the changes made in the last 12 months are there to increase independence. Let’s see some.

I’d like to see a leader who doesn’t care if he is sacked, who just makes an example of those holding the game back, refuses to sign non-disclosure agreements and goes down in a blaze of glory.

Bugger consensus. If someone comes out and highlights all that is wrong, his or her legacy will be that we know what must be done to make it right.

Steve Mascord

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