Written by Stuart McLennan
Over the last 12 months interest in international rugby league has risen to unprecedented levels. An exciting time to be alive if you love your league beyond supporting an NRL or Super League club.
The Jamaica ‘Reggae Warriors’ sensational victory over the USA to qualify for the 2021 World Cup saw fans looking for Jacksonville (match venue) on the map and adopting the fledgling rugby league nation as their second national team.
Tonga, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea in the 2017 World Cup and an Emerging Nations World Championship final earlier this year featuring Malta and Niue warmed us up.
Crusty NRL centric national coaches are now declaring that the international game is the way forward.
Rugby league expansionists are considered the ‘hipsters’ of the sport. A tattoo featuring a French Elite 2 rugby league club would surely get you a ticket to hipster heaven.
International rugby league is now on the verge of performing a ‘craft beer’ like transition to being a mainstream product with all the benefits that would bring.
Podcasters, merchandise marketers, writers and social media influencers are gushing at the thought of how far we can ride this wave and where the opportunities might lie. Myself included.
I have even read suggestions from fans that some of the wave of current commentators would be suitable candidates to head up national and international governing bodies. Really? Why?
As someone who writes about the international game I understand the power of media, public relations and marketing in gaining support and recognition. There is a lot of fantastic work being done to make the game known across the globe. However let’s take a step back and regain some perspective.
Blood, sweat, tears and personal sacrifices in far flung countries are the real catalyst for the current level of activity.
International rugby league in most instances exists in non-traditional territories because of a passionate fan who has done the hard work of attracting players, organising competitions, sourcing equipment and funding, finding fields to play on, educational officials and the list goes on. There are no financial incentives and volunteers digging into their own pockets are generally what keep competitions running.
We would have nothing to write, talk about or indeed sell if it wasn’t for these hard working self-sacrificing types.
It sounds a lot like community sport anywhere doesn’t it? International rugby league is a grassroots game except for a small handful of countries.
Following his team’s historic 2021 World Cup qualification victory against the USA, Jamaica Coach Romeo Monteith, who has been there from the beginning, told NRL.com that he is determined to use the exposure generated by the success of the Reggae Warriors to develop the game in Jamaica, where about 1000 registered male and female participants are forced to play on stone and rock-filled fields or are often chased off soccer pitches.
“We play in the high schools, in the colleges and at community clubs but it has been tough.
“Our kids play on fields of stones, that is not a joke. There are many fields that we are banned from using so one of the main things I would like to see come out of this is for our government to allocate a ground for us so our kids can play in peace,” Monteith said echoing a wish that is shared by rugby league developers across the world.
When I arrived in Greece two and a half years ago one of the first people I met was a volunteer running the rugby league association. Besides administration his involvement extended to playing, coaching, refereeing, educating officials, acting as a touch judge, attempting to source sponsorship and pumping up balls just to start with.
When my fellow coach picks me up for our games in Athens, I share the seat with a load of plastic plumbing pipes. The pipes are assembled into rugby goals and attached to soccer posts at the ground so conversions can be attempted. Our team captain spends his time outside work and training attempting to find venues and officials for matches.
Dedicated volunteers replicate this work in countries around the world.
Greece will play Norway in the next stage of the qualifiers. If they win things start to get serious and Greece becomes a real contender for a World Cup spot.
Greek officials would of course be ecstatic if this was to occur, however they all agree that a healthy and sustained domestic competition is the greater goal.
The legacy we leave for the next rugby league generation has to be increased participation in the sport across the globe.
There is no set path to achieve these lofty goals. Each country, whether it be Serbia, Chile, Greece, Jamaica or Turkey, to name just a few, has managed the process differently. The common denominators are strong leadership and buckets of sweat.
Through the power of technology international enthusiasts can now double click on a link and we are in Belgrade watching a game accompanied by expert local commentary. A spectator can now attend Shark Park wearing a Turkey Rugby League jersey. Bloody fantastic!
We have these luxuries because of the people that having been digging the rugby league ‘wells’ in years gone by. Some have failed, some have succeeded but all have done it under difficult conditions with little or no funds.
Let’s ensure these pioneers receive the recognition, if not the remuneration, they deserve and we learn from their collective experiences to build the sport across the globe.
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