Toa Samoa fans set the benchmark on how to win graciously. Videos / Candice Luke / NZ Herald
Sunday’s World Cup final should have been the start of a brave new world for international rugby league.
Instead, it feels like the end of something special.
Like Tonga at the 2017 edition, Samoa
captured hearts and minds with their brilliant run in England. They even went one better than their Pacific cousins — reaching the final — and provoked massive excitement and pride for the Samoan diaspora around the world.
Toa Samoa, for a couple of weeks, helped put league on the map, whether it was through the stories of the vociferous celebrations in Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and the United States, or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson promoting the team to his 347 million Instagram followers.
Samoa are hot property — but when will we see them again? Right now, there are no plans in place for matches next year.
The NRL has binned the mid-season representative weekend, which was a valuable showcase of Pacific league and an important way to maintain continuity for fans, players, high performance staff and coaches. The governing body has talked about a dedicated end of season international window but has yet to confirm any fixtures or plans. Even if it does, putting teams into an 11-month hiatus is madness.
The international game is vital, particularly for the Pacific nations and New Zealand, but it still feels like an afterthought.
That was obvious with the recent announcement of the 2023 NRL draw. It promised “more action than ever”, with a longer premiership season, from March 2 to the grand final on October 1. There is also a new pre-season competition, starting in the second week of February.
So when exactly will players have a break? And how are they supposed to accommodate representative football?
The answers: They won’t, and they can’t. Otherwise, they will be playing the world’s most physically demanding sport from February to November and something has to give.
While the NRL needs to chase broadcasting dollars, their short-sighted approach to test football is bewildering. It’s their point of difference — along with State of Origin and the AFL — and is something that can move the needle and genuinely grow the sport.
With all respect, no one is clamoring for more games between the Titans and the Tigers. International football is also valuable for the players. It’s a break from the club grind and a chance to play with compatriots and perform for a new audience.
But it doesn’t seem to matter.
In the past five years the NRL has first squashed the Anzac test and now the representative weekend, while the club season gets longer and longer.
At the same time, the game isn’t exactly booming. Crowds are down, as are television viewers. It could be due to the constant tinkering with the rules, which have created something that looks like touch football with tackles and eliminated a lot of the close contests that used to define the sport.
But it might also be supporter fatigue. There is only so much club league you can watch — even as a diehard — and quality diminishes as demands on players go up.
Most of all, the optics aren’t great.
The NRL benefits so much from New Zealand and Pacific players but is making it more and more difficult for them to represent their countries in international football.
There is no simple answer, but as a start, the NRL needs to bring back the mid-season representative round from 2024 onwards and work with broadcasters to convince them that test football can be part of their palette.
Imagine a World Cup final rematch in May in Sydney, while the Kiwis play Tonga in Auckland on the same weekend?
Then they can gradually work on enshrining the international game in the calendar on an annual basis, with the international federation, rather than the ad hoc situation of the past two World Cup cycles.