If you had bothered to watch International Rugby League in the last four decades, you would have discovered that it was a complete joke. Sure, there were moments that stood out. Memorable campaigns from Papua New Guinea, Matthew Ridge’s left foot drop dick, Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s world cup winning rampages, or Darryn Lockyear having the ANZAC night from hell are all highlights that define what sport should be at its best. But over the past few months the world of International Rugby League has gone through a metamorphosis, and it’s a change that Rugby Union should take note of.
The Rugby League World Cup has been captivating in almost every fixture. Australia, still the dominant force laying waste to all who come up against them. England returning to the final after a nail biting final few minutes against feel-good story Tonga, who themselves only just beat out Lebanon in the quarters. Then there was the decline and mismanagement of the Kiwis, who left unceremoniously at the the hands of a lightweight Fijian team.
While all this was going on, the largest touring team of All Blacks in decades romped through Europe unchallenged. At points it seemed like they were just throwing players into new positions and treating it as a training run, although the question should be asked what exactly they were training for, because they haven’t been challenged in any way since they won the world cup in 2011. In fact I would suggest that, such is the depth of New Zealand Rugby, the top four teams in the world could all be beaten by four completely different lineups of All Blacks. Which is exactly why every single game bored the hell out of me.
Sport is about drama, emotion; the sudden play that creates victory or the unexpected defeat. Rugby won’t have that again, unless it manages to recreate the purely coincidental events that saved Rugby League just a month ago.
The problem with both codes was the dominance of one or two teams. And just when it seemed that would go on forever, the players in Rugby League started to make their intentions clear. Stars of the game like Jason Taumalolo, Jarryd Hayne, Michael Jennings, Will Hopoate and Konrad Hurrell decided to play for the “so called” tier two nations, and in doing so, ended the unwritten rule that players only played for the countries of their origin as they develop or when they retire. The impact was immediate. Games that were seen as largely dead rubber between Samoa and Tonga were now anticipated sell outs. Nations like Lebanon could rely on a balance of experienced stars like Robbie Farrah and up and coming youngsters. They even managed to attract legends of the game like Brad Fittler into coaching roles. At the end of the day, and with the help of a tough call from the ref, the final ended up being England vs Australia and Bennett vs Maninga, but how they got there was remarkable.
Imagine for a moment if the same logic was applied to Rugby in the mid 90s. Michael Jones, Inga, Jonah, Joelli, Tana and a number of undisputed legends of the game could have been growing a product that would be one of the most competitive sports around, instead of creating a “tier system” and allowing themselves to simply play the most lucrative teams over and over – the All Blacks could have had a key role in growing the game.
Instead, the last decade has seen them create a production line of talented Tongans, Fijians, Samoans and Cook Islanders all wanting to wear the black jersey because that’s where the money is. Meanwhile, participation in rugby everywhere but Wales has significantly declined. Unfortunately, by their own design the NZRFU has made the All Blacks a nearly unbeatable big fish in a pond containing every other nation's seventh or eighth choice sport.