What is the future of the International Rugby League?

Since the Super League war, Rugby League has failed to cement an international calendar. Historic tours have disappeared – partly because of the war but also since the English game was moved to a summer season.

The loss of tours in terms of damage to international play was only exacerbated by the 2000 World Cup, which crippled the international federation. From there the Tri-Nations were created and later replaced by the Four Nations, and when the World Cup returned in 2008 the representative scene remained alive.

The 2008 World Cup was not an ambitious event, but for Rugby League it was the foundation on which the 2013 World Cup could and did improve. The 2017 World Cup was a mild disappointment, but the consistency of the World Cups still hinted at a brighter future for the international version of the sport.

Then COVID happened.

All plans established for the international match have been scrapped or suspended, namely the Ashes tours. The 2021 World Cup has been postponed, but at least it happened. Hopefully the 2025 World Cup in France will be even better, but what about the tours?

When Australia played Great Britain, they played for the Ashes. When New Zealand played Great Britain/England, they were playing for the Baskerville Shield. With the rise of Samoa, Tonga, with Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Fiji, should only Australia and New Zealand benefit from circuits? And how can these nations compete more regularly with England, France and other countries?

There are several options.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Option 1 – A Pacific Six Nations (comprising Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and PNG).

This event could take place every four years between World Cups. If it started in 2023, it could happen every four years in perpetuity (2027, 2031, 2035 and so on). Each nation would play the other once, with the top two teams playing a final. Other Pacific nations, such as the Cook Islands, would compete in their own Pacific Cup, where the winner would qualify for the next World Cup. Under this model, Australia, New Zealand, PNG, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji would be automatic entrants for each World Cup.

In terms of tours, these nations would be divided into groups:

Group 1 – Australia, Fiji, PNG.

Group 2 – New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga.

These bands toured England and Europe in turn. In 2024, Group 1 would go on tour. In 2026 (after the 2025 World Cup), group 2 would be on tour. On these tours, Australia and New Zealand would always face England in a best-of-three series. They would also play two more Test Matches, possibly against France and Wales. While the other nations would all play a single Test against England, they would take part in matches against other European countries. In total, the competing nations would play around five Test Matches. Ideally, midweek tour matches would also take place.

The advantages of this format are that tours are back. Australia and New Zealand play three more matches for the traditional trophies against England while facing two other nations. On top of that, other Pacific nations can take on England, tour and play against other nations. The whole process improves the Rugby League fixture list. The wrong side? According to this model, England or other European nations do not have time to visit the southern hemisphere.

Option 2 – A Seven Nations Pacific Cup in conjunction with a tour of England

This model would expand the six Pacific nations to seven teams – including the Cook Islands and a visiting England team. This would mean that each time the teams from the Pacific played each other it would count towards the Pacific Championship, but when they played England it would count as a single test match. This way, England still spins and the Pacific island nations get regular contests.

What is the future of the International Rugby League?

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Under this proposal, Northern Hemisphere tours would not change (except that the Cook Islands would also tour).

Admittedly, under this model, the Lions tours wouldn’t hold three matches against Australia or New Zealand, but in reality, that might not be a bad thing. It’s been so long since England beat Australia in Australia – in a game (like GB in 2006) or in a series (like GB in 1970) that a tour of England no longer arouses interest. that she once had.

Under this model, England would play seven test matches and play several tour matches.

There is another advantage to this model. When England tour Australia they can play against NSW Country, NSW City, a Queensland Country XIII, a Combined Affiliate States team and most importantly an Australian Indigenous team.

Also, when they go to New Zealand, they could face a Maori representative team and an Auckland representative team. These midweek games could revitalize the concept of the tour and serve as a barometer for future tour success. And these touring games could be played in national and regional areas showcasing the game to a wider audience.

The wrong side? What about France and other European nations? When are they going on tour? How are they improving? And yes, that’s a lot of rugby league.

These are valid questions, and there are plenty of problems with this model, but if England go through, other European nations could participate in a European Championship which also acts as a qualifying process for the World Cup. In terms of tours for these nations, they could still send youth or representative teams to where they will play matches against the previously mentioned selected teams. And only once they consistently challenge and beat these teams should you consider playing (on tour) against the best nations in the Pacific.

What is certain, more funding should be provided to representative teams from clubs and schools in England and Europe for a tour of Australia. Allowing the next generation to experience and compete with the quality present in the southern hemisphere will only enhance their development (if done correctly) and hopefully close the gap between the two hemispheres.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 25: (L-R) Australia's Jake Trbojevic, Australia's James Tedesco and Australia's Daly Cherry-Evans celebrate a try during the International Rugby League Test match between Australia's Kangaroos and Neo Kiwis -zealanders at WIN Stadium on October 25, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia.  (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

So imagine a fixed international calendar. A system that allows groups of supporters to organize supporter trips. A system that offers the opportunity to introduce the world to the cultural wonders present in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. I would pay to watch an Ashes UK tour if I knew there would be midweek games and had the time to plan and save for it.

Yet those ideas are just that, and sadly the governing bodies have yet to come up with a schedule that provides the necessary competition for league nations.

Until they draw up a fixture list, we can wonder: what is the future of the International Rugby League?

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