Way back in October the 2017 Rugby League World Cup opened with England playing against one of the three host nations, and clear favourites, Australia. More than a month later the fourteen nations in the tournament have been whittled down yet the same two teams remain.
You can be forgiven for being totally unaware, perhaps even blissfully, that this event has even been taking place; a sad reflection of rugby league’s existence on the fringes of the global sporting consciousness.
For those in league’s second biggest heartland, the north of England, the games are in the middle of the night, occasionally slipping into breakfast time. But instead of sports fans in the northern hemisphere rising early for a showcase final in Brisbane, attention will instead be on the second Ashes Test in Adelaide in a series which does generate plenty of excitement as well as insomnia.
The event has also been a damp squib in the sport’s true home, New South Wales. For reasons too obviously financial, only two games in a 28-match tournament mostly being played in Australia have been hosted in league-mad Sydney. There were no games at all in core cities such as Newcastle and Wollongong. Meanwhile, the concurrently run Women’s Rugby League World Cup has exclusively been held in Sydney, a city which hosts eight sides in the NRL, with the final in Brisbane before the men’s showcase.
Another factor which has dampened World Cup fever is the strange scheduling which has seen games only played at weekends. Given the huge distances within Australia few fans will have travelled out of state to watch games.
Most baffling of all was the tournament’s group-stage format. Two groups of four and two groups of three. To guarantee an equal number of games for each team, the teams in the smaller groups played an additional inter-group game.
However, the top three teams in the four-team groups all qualified for the quarter-finals while only the top team in the three-team groups advanced. Unbelievably, this cockeyed format had been employed in the previous World Cup and only works to discourage the minnows.
But it has been the (relative) minnows who have provided the World Cup’s excitement. Given home advantage, Papua New Guinea won all three group games in the frenzied atmosphere of Port Moresby, particularly in a gripping 14-6 victory over Ireland. The Irish went home disappointed, but not as sadly as Scotland, who travelled back with heads hung in shame after three players, including skipper Danny Brough, were banished after they were declared too drunk to board a flight.
As if further proof were needed that Britain divided is so much the poorer for it, Wales travelled home after being crushed 50-6 by PNG and 72-6 by Fiji. Meanwhile, the seemingly unlikely rugby league nation of Lebanon – originally sprouting from the large Lebanese community in Sydney – reached the quarter finals after beating France in the group stage and were only knocked out 24-22 by the other big surprise package, Tonga.
Tonga upset the long-existing status quo by beating 2008 winners New Zealand 28-22 in the group stage to secure a manageable route to the final. After squeezing past Lebanon, the Tongans came close to reaching that final but just failed to pull off one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time against England.
Thus the final on Saturday [2 December] is a repeat of the tournament’s opening game. Australia vs England is what the organisers would have wanted when they drew up the schedule. They would have settled for Australia vs New Zealand – as the only other match-up that offers realistic likelihood of a competitive final – but seem to lean towards the inter-hemispherical conclusion to the quadrennial event.
The last three finals have been contested by the Aussies and the Kiwis, and England have only appeared in one since being divided into the constituent nations of Great Britain for the 1995 competition.
That the Kiwis have in recent years been Australia’s main competition only fosters a feeling that Down Under is the only true heartland for the sport, given that the New Zealand Warriors, a club team previously known as Auckland, compete in Australia’s National Rugby League domestic competition.
As Wales coach John Kear said: “I get the impression from speaking to people involved in the game in the southern hemisphere that the World Cup is looked upon as a third tier comp. They say top tier is State of Origin [New South Wales vs Queensland], second tier NRL and this is seen as a standard below NRL. It probably is and that is reflected in the interest shown in it.”
Australia have won 10 of the 14 World Cups played. GB have won four, but all before the tournament was expanded, and to create extra teams, the British Isles were divided. New Zealand briefly turned the world of rugby league upside down by winning the 2008 tournament on Australian soil, but that impertinence has merely added resolve to their great rivals.
Of course anything can happen in a one-off game, but this World Cup has merely highlighted a truth to the sport, that it is loved by its hardcore but is frighteningly inconsequential elsewhere. If rugby league is to thrive it needs to embrace the smaller nations who brought drama to the tournament and offer a route to growth. Until then the sport is consigned to the shadows.