Peter Smith: Introverted NRL putting expansion plans at risk

2017 Rugby League World Cup winners Australia.
2017 Rugby League World Cup winners Australia.
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RUGBY LEAGUE faces numerous obstacles.

For years it has battled against obstruction and open hostility from the other rugby code. There’s also the north-south divide and the indifference of the national media who believe anything occurring north of Watford Gap isn’t worth bothering with.

England coach Wayne Bennett.

England coach Wayne Bennett.

Add in years of financial struggle and the devastating impact economic decline has had on many of its core communities and it is remarkable the sport has lasted this long.

Rugby league is a survivor though and, despite being written off time and again, it will celebrate its 123rd birthday this year. Though there are concerns over the direction the sport is taking, the 13-a-side code is probably no worse off now than it has ever been and in many ways it is in a healthy state.

But what rugby league has never been able to do is expand. Over the decades new clubs have sprung up across England and Wales and very few of them have survived, never mind thrived.

However, rugby league is now played in more countries than ever – even if only at a low level – and there is real optimism it could fill a gap in the North American market.

Toronto’s success – promotion in their first season and healthy four-figure crowds for home games – has encouraged other promoters and cities, including Boston and New York, could be the next to join the Rugby Football League.

The next World Cup will be held primarily in England, but the one after that is headed for the United States and Canada. That is a bold step and it will only work if the entire sport gets behind it.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The main obstacle rugby league faces is – and always has been – itself.

The sport seems unable, under any circumstances, to pull in the same direction. Mismanagement and in-fighting has plagued the code almost since the first ball was kicked in the Northern Union and it is the NRL – Australia and New Zealand’s premier competition – which is proving the biggest stumbling block to plans for growth into America.

England are due to play New Zealand in a one-off mid-season Test in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, June 23. This is a great opportunity to test the water and make inroads into North America.

It is the first real step towards USA 2025, but the proposed game has been under threat from NRL clubs. They are reluctant to release players for the fixture, something Betfred Super League sides have no problem with.

The argument put forward – that playing at altitude in Denver in mid-summer heat is dangerous – is false. England’s team medic Dr Chris Brookes has made it clear there are no significant risks to players’ health.

A recent NRL round was played in temperatures at some venues reaching 38 degrees and Australian players often back-up from State of Origin – the annual three-game series between New South Wales and Queensland – with only two or three days’ rest.

The fact is, the NRL clubs are not interested in the wider game, as long as they are involved in a successful and lucrative domestic competition.

The international game has always played second-fiddle to club rugby league and that is one of the main reasons the sport has never really expanded outside its traditional heartlands.

If they got their way, the NRL clubs would be quite happy for there to be no Test matches played anywhere, keeping their players fit and rested for the domestic competition. The attention last year’s World Cup generated highlighted the importance of international rugby. Test matches are the one time rugby league attracts national interest in this country and more international games are the only way the sport will truly go forward.

England coach Wayne Bennett and his NRL-based players have made it clear they want the Denver Test to go ahead.

If the NRL clubs get their way it will be the beginning of the end for rugby league’s hopes of ever growing beyond its existing base. It is that serious.