With the postponement of the World Cup, rumours abound of an alternative international rugby league being organised later this year. There have been murmurings of an England-France series, whilst Scotland and Jamaica are in negotiations over a fixture at Featherstone.
Whilst any action would be better than none, the authorities quickly need to formulate a combined schedule under their jurisdiction. From a purely financial point of view, International Rugby League (IRL) need to be involved.
The World Cup postponement has hampered their economic projections, undermining the funding they distribute globally. In lieu of this, the IRL would be best served by coordinating a European competition this autumn.
They take ten percent of profit from tournaments they organise, meaning that this lost World Cup year is brutal on their accounts. Bilaterally organised fixtures are of minimal use. So, whilst not accounting for the losses from 2021’s postponement, a European tournament could keep some operations ticking over.
Relations with the NRL are extremely tetchy, so attempting to organise international rugby league Down Under are futile for now. But there’s more than the impracticalities of trans-hemispheric organisation with pandemic restrictions in place. The jettisoning of the World Cup has truly demonstrated the nature of international rugby league, and the tensions between Europe and Australasia.
The “selfish, parochial and cowardly” decision by Australasian governors has vivified the need to change strategy in Europe. A degree of self-reliance and Euro-centric competitive balance needs to take hold.
Australian rugby league has been retreating in on itself for years, so relying on trans-hemispheric cooperation is fraught with danger. The Denver Test, Kangaroo ‘rest years’, World Club Challenge reticence, the list goes on.
But the present situation has also exposed the hypocrisy of English administrators. Just as fans castigate Antipodean non-committal, the RFL have also failed to demonstrate their commitment to the international game.
Since the 2013 World Cup on home soil, England have only played European opposition five times, and two of those came in tournaments. Chris Hill first thought of a Yorkshire-Lancashire series rather than international fixtures to fill the void this autumn. That speaks volumes of the game’s current mindset. It is in this context that the IRL must work to coordinate a European Cup, for this year, and going forward. Would England win? Almost certainly, and for some time to come. But that’s not the point. An England international, no matter how lopsided, would attract more national viewership and interest than a tight domestic game. Other sports are fine with the idea of odds-on favourites. Rugby league is seemingly obsessed with requiring every fixture to be a close-run thing.
In any case, there need not be fear of embarrassing blowouts. England will be without much of their starting line-up owing to Australian travel restrictions. Such absences will disproportionately hit the favourites over every other side. The player pool in France has been building and improving, to the point where it’s at its strongest in years.
Eligibility allows for players to switch between England and other nations this year, without hindering their World Cup chances. We saw Jermaine McGillvary line up for the All Stars. Rather than hinder his chances, his star showing demonstrated his ability to Shaun Wane. Ben Currie and Toby King could return to Ireland, and Morgan Knowles to Wales. Kallum Watkins could debut for Jamaica, and Daryl Clark, assured of an England spot, may opt for Scotland this year.
There would be cries of player welfare, understandably after the past two seasons and the turbulent nature of (re)arranged fixtures. But to use this as a cop-out would be to engage in the same self-serving as the Australian governing bodies. Players would be given the choice to play, but considering the overwhelming desire of players to line up this year, there shouldn’t be too many dropouts. The sport needs to build brand recognition for international rugby league ahead of the World Cup.
National sides also need to play and train with each other if they are serious of international progression. Players, often unfamiliar with their compatriots, need to familiarise themselves to the linkups, combinations, and athletic peculiarities that drive club sides.
The IRL should not be guilty of overlooking the women and wheelchair players either. European structures should not shoehorn them in as gestures of tokenism, but include them as vital components of international rugby league.
Andrew Foster came up with a prospective schedule. It’s a good marker, but it would be better to see the concept expanded and taken to its full potential. That could look something like this:
Potential Groups International Atlantic Cup
Group A: England, Ireland, Wales
Group B: France, Scotland, Jamaica
- Saturday 16 October: Wales VS England, Colwyn Bay
- Sunday 17 October: France VS Jamaica, Carcassonne
- Saturday 23 October: Ireland VS Wales, Dublin
- Sunday 24 October: Scotland VS Jamaica, Featherstone
- Saturday 30 October: England VS Ireland, Leeds
- Sunday 31 October: France VS Scotland, Avignon
Saturday 7 November, Finals Day: Toulouse
- Bronze Medal Match: Ireland VS Scotland
- Final: England VS France
- Game 1, Saturday 23 October: France VS England, Albi
- Game 2, Sunday 31 October: England VS France, Warrington
- Game 3, Saturday 7 November: France VS England, Toulouse
- British & Irish Trophy: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland
- European Trophy: France, Italy, Spain, Norway
Competition winners would meet for the Atlantic Cup.
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