When the test match between England and New Zealand was announced to be played in Denver this summer it seemed that it was one of the first steps to truly developing the international game. With the USA set to host the 2025 RLWC, it is vital that strides are taken to build both the profile and participation in a market which, if targeted correctly, could be a total game changer. What better way to instigate this than having two of the tier one nations competing over there?
Both the English and the New Zealanders had people praising the idea and were excited about the event. Back in February, shortly after the announcement of the match, vastly experienced Australian and England coach Wayne Bennett – a huge advocate of the international game – explained that “for us to grow stronger as a group and build on the progress of last year, these are the games we need to be involved in. We hear people talking about growing the game and this is the perfect opportunity to take two of the world’s elite nations over to a country that loves sport and entertainment.” When a man of Bennett’s standing and reputation in the game says such a thing, the rugby league world ought to take note. After all, he is a man who has won NRL championships and World Cups.
His views are shared by Simon Mannering, the former Kiwi captain. The 31 year old said that “I think it’s a great concept and one I wish was around five years ago when I was a bit younger. Growing our game internationally has to be a priority — think of the opportunities we could create for our game if it was a genuine international sport played all over the world.” However, back in February, it seemed that the game was definitely set to happen – and that no longer seems to be the case.
That is down to the NRL and it’s clubs who are reluctant to release their players for a match. However, the 23rd of June date for the match falls in an NRL bye weekend where a standalone State of Origin match is to take place; the England versus New Zealand test match wouldn’t see any NRL players miss a club match. Instead, their reluctance to release players perhaps stems from a fear of losing players through injury. However, one of the clubs who may be more justified in opposing the fixture and, more to the point, their players playing in it are Canberra Raiders – the team who saw their star hooker Josh Hodgson ruled out of the majority of their 2018 season following an injury wearing the white of England in the RLWC. Instead, they have already confirmed that they will release players – such as former Super League star Elliott Whitehead – for the Denver test. It is hoped that the fact that one team has revealed their commitment to the test will lead to more, but that remains to be seen. Interestingly, the New Zealand Warriors – the team most likely to be affected by call ups – have seen their coach, former Kiwi boss Stephen Kearney, refuse to comment while their CEO Cameron George suggested that the team would look at the situation on a player by player basis.
Right now, the sport as a whole is being brought into disrepute by the NRL’s refusal to let players represent their countries. It has long been perceived that the Australian domestic competition as a whole views the international game as second tier; not worthy of their commitment or time. They are coming up with excuses, some of which seem bizarre. One of them is that of their worries about their players playing at such high altitude – Denver’s Mile High Stadium sits 5,280 feet above sea level. However, South Africa’s Ellis Park, a venue which has hosted countless rugby union matches, is around 700 feet higher still. Even higher is the home of Bolivia’s national football team in La Paz. Estadio Hernandes Siles sits a staggering 11,932 feet above sea level, over double that of the Denver venue. That, though, doesn’t stop FIFA sanctioning international matches there, matches where some of the best footballers in the world play. Indeed, England’s chief medical officer, Dr Chris Brooks has publically said that there isn’t any risk to the players’ health and that the insurance covering rugby league players is now more extensive than anything that has gone before. Still it has left one of England’s best players Sam Burgess – who happens to be based in the NRL with South Sydney – suggesting that the players would cover their own insurance if it is the only way to ensure they get to play in such a high profile match.
Futhermore, Burgess himself has gone as far to question whether there is an agenda – led by the NRL – to stifle the growth of the international game in order to keep Australia as the top. Of course, there is no argument that the Australasian competition is the pinnacle of domestic rugby league but it can’t, or shouldn’t, be held in a higher regard than the game as a whole. Could it be that the Kangaroos are frustrated at having missed out on the money that is reportedly being paid out? Perhaps. Moore Sports, the organisation behind the 2025 World Cup bid, organised the game and it has been reported that the RFL is set to earn £280,000 through the event with NZRL likely to receive an equal amount.
Such is the frustration from both the RFL itself and the NRL based English players surrounding the negative view on the test from an Australian point of view, the players have felt forced to sign a statement in support of the match and declaring their desire to feature in Denver. Indeed, Bennett himself has signed the letter alongside Burgess and his brothers, George and Tom, St George Illwarra’s James Graham and Gareth Widdop, Chris Heighington and Elliott Whitehead. Even Josh Hodgson, a man unlikely to be fit to feature, signed it such was his desire for his compatriots to get the chance to take the game to a new territory.
The reports that legal action may be taken by both sides is an extreme step any self respecting rugby league fan would hope wouldn’t come to fruition. Instead, this writer believes that the NRL needs to see past it’s own interests and look at the wider picture of rugby league – the players want it, the fans want it and the RLIF sanctioned it. If the game’s governing body fails to ensure the game goes ahead with the best players available to both teams it is shocking. The Denver test should happen – it may well be the players themselves who make sure it doesn.