Recently there has been a call from some sectors to bring back the old tours from yesteryear. In particular is the Ashes and the idea that by having Great Britain back it will compete better with Australia and New Zealand again. Funny enough this is coming from section of the Australian fans and sporting public, a public that tends to be very un-educated on how much the sport of Rugby League has grown over the years around the world. Let me say this: Tours should not be brought back because they are probably the single most reason why the sport of Rugby League for so long has been stagnant. Its been when the tours were dismantled that international rugby league started to flourish. Any attempt to bring them back will only kill the sport once again and have it as a 3/4 horse race once again. I hope that by the end of this piece I can convince you why I feel this way.
First let me make a comment on the Great Britain Lions. A team like Great Britain, pretty much always has and always will be dominated by English players. There will be the odd Welsh, Scott or Irishman that will get in here and there but they will tend to always claim to be a Englishman anyway. The concept of the Rugby League GB team was always I always found was a flawed one. It was never a true GB team like say in rugby union. Union’s British and Irish lions always chose the best players from the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish national teams and competition. These were always on a par internationally with each other and so always had a level field as to choose from. Thus you always had a good representation of the home nations in that team. The Rugby League Lions have never had this. The Welsh, Scottish and Irish national teams and local comps (which only come into existence very recently) were never serious players. It was always a English national team and competition biased tour. Players. Its only after the fact that now we revel in some of those player to have roots in Wales and other home nations. In reality there has never been any difference between a GB team and an English team in Rugby League.
Tours basically stifle International competition. They create an artificial eliteness in the sport that the teams privy enough to be part of that for the life of them will want to keep. Tours do this damage on several levels and you can still see this in other sports such as Cricket and Rugby Union. There is a definite upper gentry of nations that play above all the other peasant teams, ones that in reality have no hope in hell of ever achieving that level. It would be akin to the old medieval tradition of not marrying beneath yourself.
First and foremost, a tour just takes out way too much time to play only a single nation. A 6-8 week tour one maybe a second country does not allow any other of the up and coming nations to get quality game time with one of the power houses. This is important an important factor. Teams always want to play the best, to be tested, unlike us Rugby League fans who have this draconian fear of blow out scores, one that players in these teams don’t have. It stems from this almost communist like mantra that the NRL and to a smaller extent the ESL have drilled into us that everyone needs to be the same and that scores need to be close. Yes win, but not by that much, we need to make it look good. I say absolute rubbish! You know what have teams set bench marks for other to aspire to, don;t have them get cut down to size just because other aren’t willing to work. For years I tried to make tours work, I was like anyone else, I want a ashes tour , I want this , have three matches here and there and on the way they can swing by here and there. It could never make it work satisfactorily where all nations had an equal opportunity to test themselves over the years, and not just with their local rivals but to have a good across the board opportunity to play a different variety of nations. I always seemed to have someone like Serbia, or Fiji or the USA missing out on quality game time. It frustrated the hell out of me, unless the domestic season was shortened and we went to a 18 week international season, it just would never work. It dawned on me around 2008/09 that it was all wrong, this was precisely why league had not grown in 100 years, tours help them back. They are good when you have only 4 teams, but when there is now over 30… ehhhhh… just won’t work.
This leads into the second reason. Players. Say what you will, players will always follow their heart and play for the country they love. They also want the best opportunity to play against the best opposition. To most professional players, money does not play a role. They already sit on hefty contracts where earning only 10% extra is a drop in a pond. Quality is what they want. You take away quality, or more precisely if you concentrate it in one point then its like a black hole, it just sucks up all in its path. Tours are this black home. If you have only 3 or 4 nations that always tour, that only play each other, then potential players for all those other nations will always get sucked into it. Its why you see players from the Pacific Islands tending to choose Australia and New Zealand over Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Not because of money, but because that is where the high quality games are. Its a catch 22 situation: Australia wont play the Pac Islands because there not good enough with players, so all the best players from the Pac islands go and play for Australia to get quality games against England and NZ, which means that Australia will not play the Pacific Islands because the quality of players is not good enough etc…. (insert England, New Zealand and Home nations where appropriate). It really is that simple. Tours drain the talent away from nations that otherwise could and would provide great opposition. It means that you would then start to get a greater balance in the power. Look Australia, NZ, England will always be dominant, but to satisfy this draconian need, they would be closer together, matches would not be a sure fire thing for the Aussies or Kiwis to win, England would have series wins and the other nations would spring upsets here and there.
Money is the third reason. So here is a question, you go to work and earn a living. You then get told that you have to give away a significant chunk of YOUR money to someone in a different job? Would you do it? I am sure the majority of us would say no. Its the same in League. The argument is why isn’t the NRL or ESL putting money into the international game? Well its not their job to do that. That money is for the NRL and ESL. They need it to survive themselves. It is the RLIF’s job to do that. Now a tour does exactly the same thing. The money earned on that tour really only belongs to the touring parties. An Ashes tour, the money only belongs to Australia and England etc… Why should Serbia or Fiji or anyone else get their hands on that? My point is that tours, just like talent, pool the money into one point. The sponsorship is for those games and tours and those nations not anything else. So by having a tour amongst a small number of powerful nations will concentrate all the money, wealth and power in those nations, which is exactly the situation we have now.
This then leads to the the fourth point that all of a sudden the RLIF is controlled by a powerful elite. A gang of 3. New Zealand, England and Australia have the controlling steaks in the international game and the biggest problem is that those controlling the international game also have control in their respective national competitions. This is a clear conflict of interest, but one that stems from the days of the tour, its a throwback to the times of old.
So what is the solution then? Simple tournaments. I always say pay credit where credit is due. Soccer in my eyes has the best international set up. Over the 4 year period they have a series of meaningful regional, inter-continental and international tournaments. This is what Rugby League needs. We have such diverse players in our elite competition, we need to be able to showcase the nations they come from. But its important that these tournaments have the best of the best. If you have a Pacific Cup, YOU MUST have Australia and New Zealand involved, similar for Europe and other regions. You need to have all the nations participating. This does several things to solve the issues. Players now must choose a country they want to play for. The knowledge that by playing for Fiji or Tonga they now have the opportunity to play the Kangaroos or Kiwis is a huge thing, play against the best teams in the world, put them to the test. By now having that talent spread, the games will never be a clear hit or miss, it means that those kinds of tournaments will have draw cards. You still can have them in Australia or New Zealand to maximise profits, but now money gets shared amongst teams in those tournaments, the regional federations now can also make money for helping and promoting the game in the regions. Isn’t it better to make $1 m than wast $1 m? The 2009 Pacific Cup in hindsight was a massive waste of time. There was zero follow up and in reality a poorly put together tournaments. It drained $1.5m from the small $5m that we had from the 2008 World Cup.
It also means that rather than relying on one tournaments every 4 years to get the international game going you build momentum right up and through the world cup. Regional tournaments then lead into as transcontinental tournaments, this can be a 4 or 6 nations with a second one in there as well. You have the teams that made the semi finals involved in these. This now means that teams like Fiji and Tonga know that in 2 years they will have played not only Australia and New Zealand but also England, France, and other nations from around the world. They could also get a chance to play the first nations again. You now start getting a true sense of the standing of nations globally. A true ranking (my thought on this for another time). Sponsors now have a greater exposure around the world to. A true international tournament that all of a sudden is being broadcast in 20 countries will have greater appeal than one that is only appealing to two countries. Sponsorship money will become more valuable and players from all the nations should start to get a cut from that, not just in a few countries. Regional governing bodies like the RLEF will start to gain greater profits from the selling of TV right just as the RLIF will as well from their tournaments. The power now will start to rest in those organisation and not in jus ta couple of national domestic comps and in those in just a few domestic teams!
One last comment, we now have a clear and definite opportunity to do something new and drastic in the RLIF. This year there has been a clean out of sorts of the Rugby league hierarchy domestically and internationally. The old RLIF board of Scott Carter, Richard Lewis, David Gallop, Nicolas Larrat, John Numapo and Andrew ill have had 50% of them leave. There is still a questions over the PNGRFL legitimacy one that potentially will effect Numapo’s appointment. So two thirds of the RLIF by the end of 2012 may not be there. Lets seize this opportunity to finally get a proper board in place, one that will drive the international game, one that will end the speculation of player eligibility and one that is willing to step in and resolve conflicts in nations. The USA, Italy and PNG situation should A. Never have happened and B. Should have been resolved 100% by now. Its unacceptable that this is still happening.
What I say, it’s heresy to some I know, but if we want Rugby League to truly grow around the world we need to truly make it an international sport and give all the nations that play it the incentives to continue. If not then we will just remain a small sport played in one region of a few countries that has just a few fans that know how great it is.
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