FORMER Great Britain coach Brian Noble believes a wonderful World Cup has “shook the tree” of international rugby league creating whole new potential – but, crucially, only if administrators find a coherent way to capitalise.
The Brisbane final is still a week away, but whatever happens there, the eventful competition held Down Under and in Papua New Guinea has certainly opened the eyes of many.
For so long international rugby league, with its ‘Big Three’ of just Australia, New Zealand and England, has been a poor sibling of the club game, whether it be NRL or, to a lesser extent, Super League.
However, given the exploits of Tonga, who stunned the Kiwis on the way to reaching a first semi-final, and Fiji, who also beat New Zealand to make the last-four for a third successive time, the landscape has altered.
Furthermore, Ireland produced wonderful scenes along with a colourful Papua New Guinea, who attracted three sell-out crowds for their first-ever World Cup games in Port Moresby.
Ex-Bradford Bulls boss Noble, now Toronto Wolfpack’s director of rugby and a long-term advocate of international rugby league, feels the 15th World Cup has broken new ground.
I feel the Pacific nations have made international rugby league a whole lot more tenable and more attractive. It makes it all the more important that England win a competition soon.Brian Noble
Working on the BBC commentary team, he told The Yorkshire Post: “There will be some negativity around New Zealand as they have been beaten by a couple of tier-two nations in Tonga and Fiji.
“But the defection of those players who decided to play for Tonga (Australia’s Andrew Fifita and New Zealand’s Jason Taumalolo) and the whole story of Tonga in this tournament, has been great.
“The Rugby League International Federation now has a sellable commodity in relation to the international game given there’s a fourth and, with Fiji, fifth nation pushing really hard.
“I feel the Pacific nations have made international rugby league a whole lot more tenable and more attractive. It makes it all the more important that England win a competition soon.
“And I think the administrators now also have a head-scratching moment where they say, ‘Right, what do we do with this thing?’ as I genuinely don’t think they do know at the minute.”
Although the international calendar is being mapped out with New Zealand playing a three-Test series here in 2018 and England hosting the next World Cup in 2021, there is now a sense that the sport needs to generate more meaningful internationals for the likes of Tonga, Fiji and PNG.
Noble continued: “There’s going to be a Great Britain Lions tour in 2019, but what are going to be the bones of that?
“Six Tests? The Pacific nations and two against Australia maybe? You’d need to take 30 or 35 players and a big coaching staff for a sizeable trip like that.
“I think this tournament has shook the tree, I really do, and it is a good thing for the game because what we’re seeing now is that even Lebanon should have beaten Tonga in the quarter-finals.
“We can put a concept together. People were really bothered about the ‘heritage’ players, but I’ve watched all those heritage players and they have really turned up for their teams as well.
“There’s been so much passion in and around this World Cup. The stand-off before that Tonga v Samoa match was just box-office.
“There’s 100,000 people live in Tonga, but I’m in Auckland now and there’s 80,000 with Tongan heritage living here. The scenes have been unbelievable.
“I think the world is its oyster for international rugby league. But what do the visionaries that run the game want it to look like?
“The Queensland and New South Wales State of Origin has been kingpin for what seems like forever, but you now have something whereby you can create another Queensland v New South Wales like a Pacific Tri-Nations with Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.
“Or include PNG or Cook Islands. Let players play for their respective countries, too, rather than stifling them like previously. It is disgraceful, mind, some of the disparities in pay between sides and that needs addressing.
“But this is a real chance now for international rugby league.”