Written by Keith Whitelock
Make no mistake, the recent announcement by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) of a rolling 8-year calendar is a very big moment for the sport.
An International Nines event, a 6 team Oceania Cup, World Cup’s (although 2025 USA/ Canada is in doubt to be fair), the return of the British Lions, increase bilateral tours, an increase in first class women’s events… there’s plenty to get excited about by this calendar.
Each country will play a lot more games than they currently do. Regular games create more cohesion amongst the squads and most importantly, more big game experience. Big game experience is a huge thing. For decades now, the big game experience that players have received in State of Origin has provided the Kangaroos with a large advantage over their competition. Whilst not quite establishing causation, a correlation can certainly be argued for the New Zealand Kiwi’s being more successful after a couple of big games playing together. Since breaking the shackles with a 24-0 defeat of Australia at the 2005 Tri-nations in England, the team went onto win the 2008 World Cup, 2010 and 2014 Four Nations. On the flip side, their record in one-off games against Australia is abysmal, winning just 3 of the 19 ANZAC Tests against Australia since 1997. Granted, other obvious factors such as the games being played mainly in Australia for financial reasons along with Australia having a far superior player depth have also play heavily on these results. This being said, Australia’s player depth advantage doesn’t explain New Zealand’s success at tournaments.
Australia’s State of Origin is widely acknowledged to be fiercest and most competitive arena rugby league has. Viewership numbers are regularly around the 4 million mark domestically with each game usually played in front of sold out stadiums. State of Origin should be celebrated as the great spectacle and event that it is. This shouldn’t limit Australia playing more games though or fans taking the mindset that “international rugby league is bad and Origin is good”. The two are not mutually exclusive. Rugby league can have a strong State of Origin and a strong international scene. With other countries to play more high-quality games, the quality of rugby played by other countries will only go up. This new 8-year calendar goes a long way to providing this.
When asked whether England will be playing many internationals in 2019, Head Coach Wayne Bennet said “We’ll be playing somewhere” before going onto say “We don’t play an Origin series, we cannot afford to let Australia continue that advantage because Origin gives them a great advantage. We’ve got to keep playing in the off-season.”.
The blunt reality of rugby league is that a large portion of fans who live and breath the game resides in Australia with many only following the NRL and State of Origin. This is fair enough too. The NRL is arguably the fiercest, most competitive domestic rugby competition in the world. Some similarities can be drawn to that way American’s watch the NBA for Basketball and no other competitions. Have you ever stopped and wondered what the impact of Origin is on your NRL club? It’s a chicken or egg scenario. Your team wins a competition, more players are selected for Origin and thus bring that big game experience to club level, perhaps using that experience to help win another premiership down the track. Teams who make the Grand Final containing low numbers of players with Origin experience often let the atmosphere and occasion get to them more. The same theory can be applied to international rugby league. Tonga were quite easily beaten by the Kangaroos last month 16-34 with it being widely acknowledged that some players let the occasion get to them. What if Tonga played against a team of this quality 3 teams per year though?
In the wake of England’s dominance over New Zealand, many fans of the international game have called for Australia to play more than what they currently do. This has been met by comments from some Australian fans along with lines of “Australia don’t want to play more games, we have State of Origin”. This is short-sighted in this columnist’s opinion. If rugby league doesn’t grow internationally then the sport risks being swallowed up in an increasingly globalised world. The fight for viewership is more intense now than it’s ever been before. The game needs to open itself up to new fanbases. The easiest way to do this is through increased competition on an international level. There’s room for both State of Origin and International League to flourish. Perhaps the amount of NRL rounds needs to be shortened in the long run to accommodate this but that’s a piece for another day. Today we celebrate the exciting opportunity that international rugby league has over the next 8 years.