Inside RL: Olympian test for the future of global game – Smith

Stephen Kearney, head coach of New Zealand outside the Olympic Stadium in London.
Stephen Kearney, head coach of New Zealand outside the Olympic Stadium in London.
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It’s good news that London’s Olympic Stadium will host this year’s second Test between England and New Zealand.

Rugby league will make its debut at the rebuilt 54,000-seater venue on Saturday, November 7.

International rugby league is crucial to the sport’s long-term well being, but seems to be treated almost as an afterthought.

Hull, a city with close ties to the Kiwis, will stage the first Test at KC Stadium on Sunday, November 1, as part of FC’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

The third Test will be played at Wigan’s DW Stadium on Saturday, November 14.

The first thing to say about the announcement of the Test match dates and venues is, why on earth did it take so long?

Last autumn England were involved in three epic Tests which captured the public imagination and drew very healthy viewing figures on the BBC, an organisation which, despite evidence to the contrary, remains convinced only a handful of northerners are interested in rugby league.

The matches against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand last year were a perfect advertisement for the international game, but the RFL waited three months, until the iron had gone very cold, before beginning the build-up to this year’s series.

International rugby league is crucial to the sport’s long-term well being, but seems to be treated almost as an afterthought.

The failure to build on the success of the 2013 World Cup is one of the RFL’s most depressing failures.

The game at the Olympic Stadium will be England’s first on home soil for almost two years, since they lost to the Kiwis in the opening World Cup semi-final, an epic widely described as one of the finest matches of all time.

During the last World Cup 7,247 people turned up at Bristol’s Memorial Stadium to watch USA play Cook Islands. By all accounts they loved what they saw, but nothing has been done to give them another taste of what rugby league fans like to call The Greatest Game.

Even after the dates and venues were confirmed for this year’s series, kick-off times were withheld, which isn’t ideal for those thinking about making a day trip to the capital from the north of England.

The fact a large percentage of those attending the game in London will have to make a 400-mile round trip has upset some fans, but it was the right decision by the organisers.

London no longer has a Super League club, but rugby league is thriving at grassroots level in the capital and the south of England generally and the second Test, at such a high-profile venue, will help promote the code down there.

It is likely Test rugby will return to Wembley for a Four Nations double-header in 2016, but the Olympic Stadium is the perfect venue for a Test against the Kiwis, who remain in the shadow of Australia as an international attraction, despite currently boasting the better team.

Though built for an event only three years ago, the Olympic Stadium is already an iconic venue and may well attract some fans who wouldn’t otherwise bother.

Breaking new ground always adds extra spice to an occasion and it’s the right size.

The attendance at Wembley for the World Cup semi-finals two years ago was 67,545, so it will be a major disappointment if November’s rematch doesn’t sell out.

In fact, all three Tests should pull in a capacity crowd.

Hull and Wigan are both relatively small venues and if rugby league can’t attract gates of just over 20,000 to see the national team play the current Four Nations champions, something is very wrong.

The fact Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney has hinted about bringing over a young squad doesn’t help, but the marketing people have eight months to do their thing and there can be no excuses for empty seats. Potentially, it could be a very good series.

England have some good young players coming through and the three matches against New Zealand is the ideal time to begin preparations for the next World Cup.

There is every opportunity for England to record a rare series win, which is why the second and potentially decisive match is being staged at the biggest venue, and mark the beginning of yet another new era.