Global rugby league plans hailed by Leeds Rhinos chief Hetherington

Gary Hetherington.
Gary Hetherington.
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LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington has hailed the Rugby League International Federation “taking a lead for the first time” by launching a maiden Nines World Cup in 2019, a move he feels could be significantly positive for the sport as a whole.

Following what chairman Nigel Wood described as an “historic” board meeting, the RLIF announced the exciting initiative yesterday along with a series of other developments.

Those include England touring Australia and New Zealand in 2019, an expanded 16-team 2021 World Cup and the governing body also investing $100,000 in next year’s inaugural Emerging Nations World Championship.

News of a Nines World Cup, though, is certainly the most eye-catching and something Hetherington – a long-time advocate of progressing the game’s shortened version – wholly supports in a bid to popularise the sport.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “It is really good news to see this happening.

“The RLIF board has taken a very strong lead, for the first time, to really develop international rugby league. That in itself could have a very beneficial effect on the domestic competitions, too.

“But, also, there seems to be co-operation between all the leading countries – Australia, England and New Zealand – which is possibly a first in itself.

“Often there’s been conflict, friction and discord; it’s never been harmonious as far as I know yet there does appear to be a pulling of the same line here which is really positive for the sport.”

There is currently no Super League Nines, Hetherington admitting clubs have generally been “ambivalent”, proven when a tournament hosted by Leeds lasted just two seasons in 2008-09.

However, he hopes the RLIF’s move at the sport’s top end will now encourage the domestic competition to bring it into their calendar, too. The NRL has held a pre-season Nines tournament in Auckland since 2014 which has grown in stature. Hetherington continued: “It needs to form part of a strategic thinking for the game. It’s interesting what’s going on in cricket where the ECB have undertaken research into the whole game: where it is and where it thinks it is heading.

“They’ve come up with the 18 team city-based Twenty20 tournament while at the same time tried to preserve the nature of international Test match cricket and the domestic game.

“We have got to do the same in rugby league and Nines offers the potential to do that.

“We have to consistently search as a game for new markets to enrich the experiences of players and find new income streams.

“This Nines World Cup, meanwhile, will give the chance for other nations to be very competitive.

“Rugby union has shown what can be done with Sevens – they have a world series of tournaments – to help popularise it and I actually think Nines is a far better game as well.”

If the maiden tournament in two years’ time is a success, the RLIF has also revealed it could consider making it its ‘Global Event’ in 2023 rather than a traditional 13-a-side event.

Wood said expressions of interest to host the 2019 Nines World Cup had already been received and a full report will be made to the RLIF board meeting in May.

Hetherington added: “The RLIF has said here it believes there’s a real vibrant future for Nines but they want to experiment how we introduce it to the calendar which is wise, too.

“It is really good news, especially for expansionists, and now we need to do some research to see how we can incorporate it at Super League level.

“Players could soon be striving to be international Nines players.

“When it’s been played in the past, it’s not really been developed but once you start doing that you will see new players, new coaches and new tactics all emerging.

“Some players will become particularly good at that form of the sport while it creates new opportunities and broadens the appeal of rugby league. Sevens has done that for union and Nines can do the same for league.”

Meanwhile, there is no confirmation yet about England’s fixtures in 2018 and neither is there any mention of a return of Great Britain in the imminent future.

Although 14 teams will compete in this year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the RLIF confirmed that will rise to 16 for the 2021 event held here.

That will allow two nations from the Americas, rather than the current one, to qualify, signifying the greater importance being placed on that area as the sport looks to expand further.

Wood confirmed, though, that all quarter-finalists from the World Cup this autumn will automatically qualify for 2021.

Tier Two and Tier Three sides such as Canada, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Niue, Philippines, Thailand and Vanuatu have all been confirmed as part of the two-week long Rugby League Emerging Nations World Championship in Sydney in November next year.

Wood said: “It will put the spotlight on the fact rugby league is played in more than 60 countries and give recognition to the many volunteer players and officials around the globe who do great things for this sport.

“One of the Board’s objectives in awarding the ($100,000) grant was to measure the event’s success by creating a legacy of participants returning to their nation to spread the interest and growth in rugby league.”

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