Rugby League’s Australia Problem

They are the current world champions, the number 1 international side in the world, they have the best league in the world, they are the home of State of Origin, arguably the biggest rugby league competition in the world, they have the best players in the world, and have produced the best in the world for many years, and they stampede their way through the world of rugby league with a very well deserved cocky, arrogant, self-assured attitude which they flaunt in everybody else’s faces at every given opportunity.

On the face of it, Australia are everything that is excellent about rugby league, but I myself, and many people I have spoken to, also have a major problem with Australian rugby league, which goes way beyond being a down-trodden Pommie who has seen my national side thumped by Australia on many an occasion.

My first problem with them is their absolute arrogance, yes they are the best in the world at what they do, yes they deserve to flaunt what they have achieved, but I believe Australia, and particularly the NRL are flying in the face of why rugby league started, and making a mockery of one of their best ideas, that of the salary cap to stop any one team gobbling up all the best talent.

Fonua leaves Hull

For many years now the salary cap has risen to dangerously high levels in the NRL, which could, if they’re not careful, come back to bite them when they least expect it. Of course the massive earnings on offer in NRL football, means it attracts all the best talent, leaving other league’s, Super League in particular, to have to try and pick up the scraps of what’s left, while our best English players also head down under, I certainly can’t blame them, rugby league is a short career. Occasionally you might get the odd outstanding talent from the NRL who will head to Super League, but they usually don’t stay long before they head home, Mahe Fonua being a case in point, having left Melbourne Storm, for an outstanding two year stint at Hull FC, before heading back to Australia to sign for Wests Tigers, even before seeing out his full contract, although it should be said that there were extenuating circumstances for the young winger.

Another competition in Australia, State of Origin, also seems to create a problem in World Rugby League, it is a great, if somewhat predictable, competition, with the biggest names going hammer and nail at each other before Queensland pick up the trophy again, but despite its absolute predictability, it is rammed down people’s throats as being, potentially the greatest rugby league competition in the world, but for me, it has become more Stale of Origin, with Queensland, comprising of most of the backbone of the Australian national side, trampling their way to the spoils against New South Wales in all but 1 of the last certainly 10 series that I can remember over the last decade.

Wales coach John Kear recently said that Australians treat the RLWC as a third tier competition, behind Origin and the NRL, and this I believe is where the problem lies for rugby league as an internationally recognised sport. We’re currently in the middle of a world cup which, barring a huge shock, Australia will win for the umpteenth time, leaving other nations with no reason to try and compete.

The only parallel that can be drawn against Australia’s dominance of international rugby league, is the years of 1988-95 in England, when Wigan won pretty much every trophy on a monotonously regular basis, including an unprecedented eight Challenge Cups on the bounce, it nearly killed the game as everyone was bored of Wigan winning everything all the time, hence the introduction of the salary cap, so other teams could compete, with Wigan unable to get their hands on all the best talent, all the time.

Right now Australia are doing the same to world rugby league, they dominate it to a degree that just isn’t any good for the game, and they’re belittling the World Cup which should, for the good of the game, be competitive and unpredictable, and not merely an Australian procession to yet another world title. Australia need to be tested, yes they claim to have the best players in the world, rightfully so, but with the exception of the miracle of 2008 when New Zealand managed to nab the World Cup from its regular resting place, they haven’t been, in the 2013 World Cup they didn’t even concede a try after the first match.

The World Cup should be the biggest competition in Rugby League, but it isn’t, and it won’t be as long as the Australian arrogance about NRL and Origin is allowed to keep going, and countries such as England need to take a stand and start keeping their best talent, at home, players like Josh Hodgson, the Burgess brothers, Elliott Whitehead, James Graham and the like, all raise the bar in the Australian competition, so what would they do here if they stayed in Super League? The answer is, inevitably they would raise the bar here.

Johnathan Thurston playing for Australia at the 2013 RLWC.

Back in the 1980s people like Australian test legends Peter Sterling, Wally Lewis, Brett Kenny and Mal Meninga all came to play club rugby here, nowadays Super League clubs couldn’t even dream of signing players like a Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathon Thurston or Josh Dugan, unless they did something incredibly stupid to get them in trouble down under, who are a similar ilk to the players that English clubs used to snap up.

How do we fix rugby league, and the international game? That is a question I will try and provide an answer to in the next article in this series of, however many I think it takes!

  • Simon Lakin

    Australia is always going to look after its own game first. Unlike in the UK it isn’t a minority sport there, it’s in the top two. With that in mind the NRL is going to be able to pay the highest salaries to attract the best players to play in the best weather.

    You can’t stop players from filling the boots with the best salaries with a short career. No partner and family will thank you for not maximising your earnings while you can. A modern RL player is retired a long time and there is only so many pundit and administration jobs to go round. Not every great player can earn his living at club management too.

    What we need to do is to grow the game in the northern hemisphere. We have got to keep banging on about how good our game is and start some radical thinking on how we can do it. If we have a game that is as good as the NRL then the Australian administrators and clubs will sit up and take notice of it.

    The problem with the World Cup is that it’s only played every four years and even the best game in the world can’t keep the momentum going for that long without offering other tournaments to play in between. There aren’t any except the four nations and then you’re relying on Australia and NZ to play. Even in this global world it’s still 12000 miles away with time and costs that go with that.

    We need a five or six nations of our own and that will help grow the game, yes the tier 2 nations will struggle at first but I don’t see an alternative. I said radical thinking was needed and this is mine. I think the RFL should look to work closely with the RFU and play our RL five/ six nations at the same venue on the same day as a warm up game to the RU six nations. Radical yes popular with everyone no,
    but the stage is bigger and the ground might not be full for the RL game but there’ll be quite a few there to see it.

    I don’t think we can expect the Aussies to look after our game as well as their own so we need to do it ourselves.