For anyone with even a brief knowledge of rugby league’s recent history, the only surprise about the announcement that Australia and New Zealand have backed out of this autumn’s World Cup is that none of this is even a surprise any more.
Rugby league is a sport that makes constitutional crisis its modus operandi, and the long-held belief at the Rugby Football League that their counterparts in the southern hemisphere hold the international game in utter contempt became a brazen reality when confirmation came that the Kangaroos and Kiwis would not be travelling to these shores.
British rugby league has suffered gravely with a lack of direction at boardroom level for a prolonged period. But the attack from the RFL’s chairman, Simon Johnson, towards his counterparts in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday was at least a refreshing addition to a book very few rugby league fans would wish to read.
Johnson’s blitzkrieg on the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL), calling them “selfish, parochial and cowardly” after they had cited safety issues relating to Covid-19 as the primary reason for withdrawing from the World Cup, articulated a view many rugby league supporters have agreed with for some time. But, for once, the myopia of those holding power in the international game could have far-reaching consequences across the globe.
Take the future of the sport in the United Kingdom. With significant government backing to the tune of £15m to help stage the event, loans aplenty for clubs and the RFL and losses running into millions due to the pandemic, it is not an exaggeration to suggest the domestic game is teetering on the edge financially. Few sports in this country have been hit as hard as league by Covid-19, largely because of how much it relies on the income and support of its fans and communities.
Without the two nations who have won the last nine men’s World Cups between them, it is difficult to fathom how the event goes ahead this year. That means huge shortfalls in sponsorship, broadcast revenue and, crucially, ticket sales. Rearranging is almost impossible given the clash with next year’s football World Cup in Qatar. You can also kiss goodbye to the BBC’s promise of broadcasting every game, as it intends to do this autumn. At a time when rugby league has borrowed more money than it would have liked to stay afloat, losing the World Cup and the riches and exposure that comes with it is nothing short of disastrous.
The World Cup is also a vital component of the government’s levelling-up strategy in the north of England, where most of the matches will be held. Tournaments such as these – particularly ones so comprehensively supported by Westminster – have the potential to leave a lasting legacy in communities and towns; without it, there is a huge hole that rugby league simply cannot and will not fill. The notion of returning the government’s financial backing could be catastrophic, if not fatal.
But again, this shortsighted, myopic decision runs beyond Australia and New Zealand’s governing bodies. This World Cup was to be a celebration of diversity and equality in rugby league, with the women’s and wheelchair tournaments running alongside the men’s competition. In the same week Australia secured the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, what message does it send to the world that their country’s rugby league authorities have no regard for their elite athletes? If nothing else, you feel the Australian government will have some pressing questions for the ARLC.
With Australia and New Zealand sending squads to Tokyo for this year’s Olympics, plus the arrival of the Wallabies in England at the same time as the Rugby League World Cup takes place, the idea that this decision is based on the safety of the players is timid to say the least. It is simply because NRL clubs, who are the main players in this sporting tragedy, are worried their elite stars may miss the start of pre-season next year if they have to quarantine.
Those in charge of rugby league in Australia would rather watch Penrith v Parramatta a thousand times over than give the sport’s top male, female and wheelchair athletes the chance to represent their countries on the biggest stage. It is narrow-minded but barely surprising given the lack of contempt Australian rugby league has for anything that doesn’t include the letters N, R and L.
But there is perhaps one saving grace here. The Guardian is aware of growing disbelief among Australia’s leading players, who have effectively had this decision made for them. They were prepared to travel and undergo the necessary quarantine requirements to try and retain the trophy they won four years ago and it is the power NRL clubs have over the ARLC that has taken the decision to do so out of their hands.
Kangaroos stars, including Damien Cook and Jack Wighton, have already stressed they want to take part in the World Cup. New Zealand’s head coach, Michael Maguire, has also insisted the Kiwis want to travel. If they can create a cascade of support in the public domain, there is a slither of hope that the ARLC and NZRL will cave and the World Cup goes ahead as intended.
The alternative for a game hovering over financial disaster simply does not bear thinking about.