Written by John Davidson
Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
The first-ever Nines World Cup will be staged next year in the new Western Sydney Stadium.
An announcement on November 30 revealed that the tournament, backed by the NRL and NSW State Government, will feature 12 men’s teams and four women’s sides over two days on October 18 and October 19. So far so good.
At the event launch NRL chief executive Todd Greenbery said: “The best players in the world will be on show in this unique concept over the course of two days at the brand new Western Sydney Stadium…. The benefits for the game are enormous. It will be an exciting and innovative tournament for our fans and it will also help to develop international Rugby League.”
This was followed by RLIF boss Nigel Wood, who remarked: “The shorter form of Rugby League provides us with an exceptional competition to attract new fans, players and commercial partners to the sport across the world whilst appealing to our current supporter base and partners who love the speed and excitement of Nines.” On the surface it all sounds great.
But, as ever in rugby league, many questions remain.
Personally, I like the idea of the Nines World Cup. I enjoyed watching the Auckland Nines, until it was scrapped. It could one day become the sport’s version of rugby union’s popular sevens. Nines is clearly not every rugby league fan’s cup of team, but I’m a supporter. However, this announcement of a new global tournament does prompt some serious queries.
Like, is this World Cup a one-off?
How regularly will it be held? Every four years? Every two?
Will we see it just bounce from Australia to England, and then back to Australia and then England again, just the like the 13-man World Cup, or go elsewhere?
Is the timing of this inaugural tournament right? October 18 is just six days after the 2019 Super League grand final in Manchester. So you can bet your bottom dollar that the 34 players involved in that match, some of the best players in England, won’t be playing in the Nines World Cup. If it was this year, that means individuals like Sam Tomkins, George Williams, John Bateman, Daryl Clark, Josh Charnley, Stefan Ratchford, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Tom Lineham, Tyrone Roberts, Oliver Gildart, Dan Sarginson and many others wouldn’t have been involved.
How will the Nines World Cup impact Great Britain’s tour of the southern hemisphere? This GB tour has been in the works for more than a decade. The British side is set to face New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. No dates and fixtures have been confirmed yet, but presumably this will be over at least a five-week period. Will all of these Great Britain players, the best in Super League, be allowed to play in the Nines? Will the coach Wayne Bennett let them? That appears doubtful.
And how will the Nines tournament impact on the new Oceania Cup that has also been announced for 2019? In that new competition Australia, the Kiwis and Tonga will face off in Test matches, while Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea will clash in their own Test games.
Surely the priority will be (and should be) on the full 13-a-side Test games for these players and coaches, and not the Nines.
Will all the national team coaches, and NRL clubs as well, allow their best players to be involved in the Nines World Cup? This was the problem with the Auckland Nines, which was eventually stopped because NRL clubs and coaches were afraid of their top players getting injured. Eventually you had NRL clubs sending teams with fringe players and rookies, along with a retired great, to Auckland instead and keeping their stars at home.
If that’s the case, how we will get the best players in the world on show, as Greenberg said?
Who will be the 12 teams involved in the Nines World Cup? In October and November next year Scotland and Ireland will be involved with European qualifiers for the 2021 World Cup, along with Russia, Spain, Italy and either Norway or Greece. So you can pretty much rule out any of those countries being involved in the Nines.
Are their plans to bring back the Auckland Nines, or create a version for Super League? At this point there is no elite Nines competition for professionals in either the NRL or Super League. So throwing a Nines World Cup out there, with no top events supporting it in either hemisphere, seems like folly.
Wood says the Nines World Cup will bring new commercial partners to the sport. Such as? Downer are sponsoring the 2019 Nines World Cup. Downer, an Australasian engineering and infrastructure company, is not a new sponsor. They sponsored the Auckland Nines for years. So what new brands are coming on board?
I could go on. While on the surface the Nines World Cup sounds great, and has potential, it needs to be properly planned and fully thought-through. There needs to be a long-term plan to maximize it and make it a success. Throwing a new World Cup out there, the same time as the Great Britain tour and the new Oceania Cup, is strange.
Diluting the market at the same time as other big events could be costly. Let’s hope there is some strategy to ensure the Nines World Cup isn’t just another hyped one-off.