Much has been written about various aspects of the RLWC which are far from ideal – one sided matches, non-neutral referees and low attendances to name just three – but perhaps the one which effects the sport in the biggest way is the manner in which the group stages were managed.
While Samoa made their way into the quarter finals by the way of two losses and a draw and Lebanon did the same after one win and two losses, Ireland won two of their three matches and – despite finishing on four points compared to Samoa’s one and Lebanon’s two – were eliminated. The reason for this was their placing in a ‘lesser’ group which means they didn’t face any tier one nations, in theory making it an easier group, but that very fact makes it quite difficult to attract new fans to the game simply because the format is harder to understand than it has to be.
The Wolfhounds this year had plenty of Super League players in their ranks, none more effective than Wakefield’s on field general Liam Finn, who supported that notion by stating “I don’t know if it’s unfair, it probably makes sense, but to me: try and explain that to someone who’s not rugby league” about the manner of their elimination. Indeed, nobody expected the Irish to beat their Italian counterparts in the first game but they did so with aplomb and then went on to push Papua New Guinea very close in front of their own fans in the sweat box that is Port Moresby. What is does show, even if they didn’t face the tier one nations, is that there is serious talent outside of the traditional superpowers of rugby league which needs to be harnessed.
This view is one felt by Rugby League Ireland boss Richard Egan who, this week, said that the sport needs a “meaningful and proper” international schedule to allow the sport to develop in areas which, thanks the RLWC making them evident, exist. In this week’s League Express, he said that the RLIF have pencilled in a Six Nations competition for 2018 with England apparently set to face Ireland in Dublin and this sort of competition, especially for the lesser nations, is vital to their development. So, of course, is that Super League and NRL clubs release players to play for their countries, a view shared by Egan – otherwise there is no point in the whole exercise.
Maybe, then, when the 2021 RLWC and future editions come around, a more sensible and uniform group stage is put in place to allow lesser countries more of a chance to progress – there shouldn’t be a competition where a four point team exits at the expense of a two or one point team and the only reason it happened is because the group stages are, quite literally, an uneven playing field. This must be rectified in order for the sport to get the recognition is deserves and the new fanbase it needs.