Is rugby league in touch or out of touch?

Photo by Anthony O'Brien

06 May 2019 - Written by Robert Burgin

Rugby league has never been more aligned and integrated with touch football than at this present moment.

The NRL Touch Premiership Draw and spotlight on the feats of former touch studs like Kalyn Ponga, Valentine Holmes, Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall is proof of this.

Rugby league organisations share their premises with touch football bodies and, generally, there is a feeling this is a partnership that will only become more prominent in years to come.

Okay, so hands up NRL fans – or even global rugby league fans – who knew there was a Touch World Cup going on this past week.

A few of you? I guess that’s an encouraging start.

Did you know it was held in Malaysia? Pretty impressive hey? Encouraging for the expansionists who want to venture into non-traditional territories.

The Federation of International Touch has previously held World Cups in Japan, South Africa and Scotland, alongside the heartlands in Australia and England.

Okay, now hands up anybody who knows the results from Kuala Lumpur.

Not so many? You were a bit confused by it? You only really heard about the winners via snippets of friend’s Facebook feeds?

Well, count me alongside you.

I was genuinely interested how it all panned out, but must admit I did have some difficulty finding where to access full results as they happened.

Anyhow, once I located where all the scores were collated, it proved quite an interesting resource.

So, how many of you knew there were 28 nations taking part, including the likes of the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore, the Netherlands, Chile, Germany, Taiwan, the Philippines and Belgium?

And how many are also aware that the three major World Cup finals – the mixed open, men’s open and women’s open – were all decided by Australia and New Zealand?

Australia won all three deciders, although there were some cracking contests.

The mixed result was a tense 7-6 score, the men’s was only 4-3 to the Aussies, while the women’s was a more comfortable 10-2 outcome.

Altogether there were 11 different divisions contested in Malaysia, including age group categories right up to the men’s over-50s.

Of the 11 divisions, nine were Australia versus New Zealand in the final.

South Africa made the men’s over-30s final, walloped 19-4 by Australia in the decider, following an 8-7 upset victory against England in the semis.

Meanwhile, the Cook Islands were a huge surprise packet in the mixed over-30s, beating New Zealand 5-3 in the semi, before ultimately falling 6-3 to Australia for the silverware.

Overall, Australia won eight of the 11 divisions and New Zealand secured the other three.

The likes of England, France, Fiji, Samoa, Wales, Scotland and PNG did not make a single grand final, while the same fate befell some composite teams from combined Europe and combined United Kingdom.

Tonga did not enter a single team in any age category.

This is the point where this story will diverge from being a public service bulletin about results that have been buried in wider media coverage, to being a column imploring people higher up in rugby league to take notice.

Before I went digging, my social media feeds tended to suggest there were only two nations taking part.

Good on the victors. They deserved to celebrate. But I saw a whole lot of photos of green-and-gold champions, and not a whole lot else.

This is despite having a friend who played for the Chilean team, which featured sparsely in coverage.

In the mixed open category, Chile placed higher than France, Fiji, Ireland and South Africa, ultimately drawing with PNG 6-all to rank seventh out of 22 nations in that division.

In the open men’s and women’s categories – the elite level – Japan finished third in both, defeating PNG for bronze in the men’s and accounting for Singapore in the women’s.

Singapore also made the top four in two other age divisions, including a win against Ireland for bronze in the men’s over-50s.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves that success in a Touch World Cup can transfer automatically to success in a Rugby League International Federation World Cup.

Obviously, the physicality is completely different.

But, if we are to be spoon-fed the idea that the two sports are now aligned more than ever, it’d be great to hear a raft of initiatives or action points that can follow this latest tournament.

I’m not talking pie-in-the-sky stuff like “Rugby league will have an Asian world champion within the next 20 years” or anything like that.

Rather, something simply along the lines of “Rugby league will ensure its national teams are aligned with the Federation of International Touch in each and every single nation” would be a start.

Even “Tonga definitely will have a touch football side, supported by the rugby league body, at the next World Cup”.

I know of countries where the touch football governing bodies and the rugby league bodies don’t communicate at all, let alone share an official alliance.

Undoubtedly, there are probably people working behind the scenes to rectify this situation.

But wouldn’t it be great for the layperson to hear our game’s leaders make a public and prominent commitment to this cause?

Touch Football Australia is, right this moment, full of driven, visionary people, many whose employment has hinged on the new closeness and funding made available by rugby league.

We need rugby league’s international heads mirroring this mindset and ambition.

I’ve got a lot of faith that 2021 Rugby League World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton and his team are going to deliver a host of great initiatives.

Certainly, he seems to be saying a lot of things about diversity and legacy that could help the sport long-term.

But if everyone involved in the international game could follow his lead and take a step up well before 2021 it would be grand.

Before I go, I’ll also return to one of my bugbears.

We need to do something drastically and concertedly about France.

They are still officially ranked sixth, despite scoring 51 points in their last seven World Cup games (average 7.3ppg) and winning just one of those seven matches.

Outside of the USA, they are the most populous country to feature at the last two World Cups, which makes them the most populous country that has true professional and semi-professional leagues.

Rugby league powers almost road-blocked the Catalans Dragons from defending their Challenge Cup title, and it feels like we are meekly surrendering our gateway to mainland Europe.

At the Touch World Cup, France finished 10th in the men’s open division, 11th in the women’s open division, and 10th in the mixed open division.

You can tell me I’m reading into things too much, but doesn’t all of this send alarm bells ringing?

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