Written by Keith Whitelock
Photo by: Bernard Rieu
As much as we celebrate the boom of international rugby league, the reality is a lot of the success is not due to hard work and toil developing the game in foreign lands. What if it was though? How different would the top 10 be?
Some countries rely solely on domestic players, seeing this as a more sustainable form of development. Other countries rely on their diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and England. Each have their own pros and cons. To reward playing more regularly, the current Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) rankings have accounted for countries who regularly play on the international stage. Even this system fails to account for the nuances of rugby league though, as teams who can play “abroad” are given the option of cheap flights or even driving to play other countries whilst teams who play “overseas” do not have this option.
Currently, full membership of the RLIF requires the below criteria in terms of playing numbers and participants:
a) Minimum eight open age teams each playing a minimum of six regular season matches, not including play-offs
b) Minimum four open age reserve division teams each playing a minimum of three regular season matches, not including play-offs
c) Minimum six-team junior club (or school) competition with each team playing a minimum of four regular season matches, not including play-offs. The age range of the competition may be anything from U14 to U18, with the six named teams all being of the same age category.
d) At least 500 registered participants (players, coaches and match officials)
Quite a tall order for a sport with little to no funding in most countries. This criterion is made especially difficult for countries will small populations and a lack of infrastructure for obvious reasons. Malta Rugby League stalwart David Axia has been especially vocal that this one size fits all approach should be reconsidered.
Putting all this aside though, the below list may throw up some surprises along with some of the top nations who will come as no shock to anyone.
1. Australia (Current Ranking: 1)
No shock here. Australia is the home of the NRL and has by far the largest amount of registered rugby league players, particularly if you count Touch Football participants. The NRL is often stated as the strongest domestic rugby competition in the world, of either code. In addition to this, the Queensland and New South Wales Cup are of a very respectable standard. Whilst direct numbers are debatable, 2008 counted 423,584 people registered to play some kind of competitive rugby league in Australia. Juniors make up most of these numbers, with an estimated 51,540 adults.
2. England (Current ranking: 2)
Home of the Super League, English Championship, League 1 and many other provincial competitions. Whilst the stronghold of the sport is obviously in the north, playing numbers and quality juniors are a surprising strength of the south in areas like London. It’s estimated that approximately 33% of schools in the United Kingdom offer some kind of rugby league program. Last available numbers put 248,648 people in England particpiating in some form of rugby league.
3. France (Current Ranking: 6)
France’s Elite One competition is semi professional competition with a very respectable standard of rugby league. A drop down in class but still very watchable is Elite 2. Outside of this there are also regional competitions and a knock out competition in the form of the Lord Derby Cup. Catalan Dragons participate in the English Super League but have been rightly criticized for a lack of genuine French player development. The club does however help develop high quality players such as Remi Casti and Morgan Escaré. Toulouse Olympique are also expected to make the Super League in the near future.
Whilst playing numbers are stated to be as high as 40,000, a more conservative estimate would put the figure at around 30,000. France is ahead of New Zealand on this list due to superior playing numbers and clubs outside of the Super League.
4. New Zealand (Current Ranking: 3)
The addition is the Auckland Warriors in 1995 no doubt had a big impact on the strength of the existing domestic competition at the time. Currently, rugby league in New Zealand consists of 16 districts, with six fielding teams in the National Provincial Competition. Playing number estimates put numbers at 24,000, with roughly 3,500 being adult. The Auckland Rugby League administer the Fox Memorial Cup with strong clubs such as Mount Albert Lions and Pt Chevalier Pirates. New Zealand Warriors also play in Australia’s NRL competition.
5. Papua New Guinea (Current Ranking: 10)
With an extremely underdeveloped highlands and a crippling lack of infrastructure, playing numbers are very difficult to come by. Most estimated put registered numbers at 15,000, with 10,000 of these numbers being adults. Rugby league is the most popular sport in PNG and played in most schools across the country. Junior numbers are likely to be significantly under reported. The top domestic competition is the semi professional Digicel Cup which is set to expand to 12 teams in 2019. In addition to this, the PNG Hunters participate in Australia’s Queensland Cup with the federal government backed bid to one day join the NRL.
6. Fiji (Current Ranking: 5)
Fiji has quite a strong 12 team competition consisting of both an eastern and western division. In addition to this a “super 6” competition takes place containing the best players from this competition. A heavy focus is put on producing genuine domestic players with a small number of players often selected for major games involving NRL players living in Australia. In 2018, Fiji National Rugby League signed a four-year, $4 million deal with Vodafone Fiji which extends the sponsorship to 15 years. Exact playing numbers are hard to come by. Fiji are also close to having a team accepted into Australia’s New South Wales Cup.
7. Wales (Current Ranking: 11)
An analysis of domestic rugby league in Wales best comes from former chairman of Wales Rugby League, Chris Thair. Below is an extract from an interview with Everything Rugby League in 2017:
“Domestically in Wales the sports growth has been sporadic, only achieving any sustained continuity in the last 15 years since the formation of the Welsh Conference in 2003. This domestic club competition was born out of two recently formed Welsh clubs that played in English competitions (Cardiff formed 2001 and Swansea 2002), ex pro’s who had moved back home and enthusiasts from university rugby league which had been played in Wales from the 1980s. Champions of the 2016 Welsh Conference, Bridgend Blue Bulls RLFC, have won nine of the 14 championships to become the most successful community club ever in Wales”.
8. Serbia (Current Ranking: 17)
Serbia have somewhat come from nowhere. Rugby League now has around 1,000 registered participants in the country. Serbian clubs dominate the Balkan Super League with the country fielding five teams in the 15 team, 5 country competition. Big clubs such as Partizan Belgrade, Red Star Belgrade, Dor?ol Spiders and Radni?ki are quickly becoming known amongst rugby league fans throughout the world.
9. Canada (Current Ranking: 21)
Canada currently has three senior competitions, the Ontario Rugby League Competition, the British Columbia Rugby League Competition and the Alberta Rugby League Competition. In addition to this, Canada were one of a small number of countries to field a team at the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup. Whilst many of these women’s players had a rugby union background, awareness of rugby league is growing thanks to the Ravens.
Toronto is the home of the Wolfpack who are widely expected to play in the European Super League in the near future. In addition to this, the city of Hamilton has also been touted as a possible future Super League team.
10. USA (Current Ranking: 15)
The 2017 Rugby League World Cup saw the USARL put a big emphasis on utilising primarily domestic American players. Whilst this saw the team almost instantly relinquish any chance of making it out of the pool stages, it was hoped that these players would go back to the USA passing on the experience and strengthening the local competition. The USARL currently has 11 teams participating. Crowd numbers are hard to come by but the Jacksonville Axemen are often seen to break the 1,000 attendance mark. Of course, the cheap beer does help. In addition to this, a bid for New York to join the English leagues is currently before Britain’s RFL.
There are many other growing rugby league competitions around the world and this list may change over the coming years. Tier 2 countries applying to have clubs in either the NRL or Super League threatens to change the dynamics of these competitions greatly. It’s not out of the question to have Red Star Belgrade, Dublin Blues, Toulouse Olympique and New York joining Toronto and Catalan in the English Leagues. To add to this, Fiji are currently on the final hurdle to have a team join the PNG Hunters playing in Australia. Whilst all these bids may not work out, what a World Club Series we could have one day!