The Rugby League World Cup: The Good, the Bad and the Future

It will have come as no surprise to many that, on Saturday morning UK time, Australia lifted the Paul Barriere Trophy. Indeed, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone, at any point, who would have betted against them but let us address the tournament as a whole.

The Good

The players

Whilst the final was a much more attritional affair, we have seen some scintillating skills throughout the tournament. The quality of play has, at times, been exceptional. Coupled with that has been the on field player conduct. There were no dismissals and very few sin binnings and the spectacle of the teams coming together at the end of some matches has been heartening to watch. True, there has been some off field misdemeanors but these have been few and far between.

The Southern Hemisphere

To see some of the Pacific Island nations do well as been encouraging. It should be acknowledged that some have benefited from relaxed notions of nationhood in recruiting players but other sports teams have previously been guilty of that. These Pacific Islands represent a potential growth market for rugby league which needs to be grasped if the sport is serious about its international game.

Papua New Guinea

The only country in the World where rugby league is the national sport did itself proud. Improving that countries prospects alongside the others in the Pacific would give the sport a more vibrant edge.

The Bad

Attendances in Australia

Too many empty seats. There will be many opinions as to why even games featuring Australia were relatively sparsely attended. John Kear almost certainly hit the nail on the head when he said that, to Australians, the international game is perceived as being behind the NRL and State of Origin in terms of quality and intensity which, one might argue despite its undoubted pedigree, makes Australia a less suitable venue for the World Cup.

The Northern Hemisphere

England may have run Australia close but the remaining Northern Hemisphere countries had so little impact and run the risk of being left behind. With Ireland, Scotland and Wales this is more explainable through the lack of domestic leagues and regular international competition but it is France that continues to disappoint. They have a Super League presence in Catalan and Toulouse are also progressing plus a domestic league and a heritage but as a country, they seem to be going nowhere. This is a desperate shame given the undoubted talent and one hopes this can be reversed as a strong French side would be good for the viability of international rugby league.

Non neutral referees

For an international sport not to have neutral match officials looks ridiculous. There needs to be international development and the administrators from the bigger nations need not be so precious about their own officials.

The Future

If Australia had won the Final by thirty points against either England or New Zealand then the future of international rugby league would have been in jeopardy. The narrow win plus good performances from other countries give hope. Given the 2025 World Cup has bravely been given to North America, one would like to see an improvement in the Northern Hemisphere performance. It is maybe that new markets like Canada and the USA need to be given priority over countries like Ireland which, for whatever reason, have never seemed to grasp rugby league. More controversially perhaps, one wonders whether South Africa is perhaps worthy of more attention and there are signs of development within Latin America as well.

Regular international competition is a must but what can be added to this is there needs to be domestic competition as well. Financially, it may well be challenging but a Pacific Super league of clubs from the islands can create regular competition to harness the undoubted enthusiasm.

For international rugby league to progress, the established leagues in England and Australia need to be both pragmatic and flexible.

This blog will end with a further complication. The greater awareness of head injuries in sport and player welfare could see a necessary reduction in the amount of rugby played. The administrators of any contact sport need to consider this right now and, sadly perhaps, it is the international game that is expendable.