The recent Tri-nations tournament between Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain has provided sports fans with some great, close matches played in stadiums with large crowds. Last Sunday morning?s upset win by the Lions in a fantastic test match has provided enough encouragement for British fans to snap up almost all the remaining tickets for the series final in Leeds in two weeks time.
The Tri-nations tournament now has people talking about the rugby league international scene and has pushed other sports more noted for their international games further down the list of news stories. This high level of interest comes a mere two and a half years after the Australian Kangaroos demolished the British Lions by over 50 points in Sydney. This match led to the front page of one Sydney paper?s sports section to declare international rugby league dead.
The recovery from terminal death to the success of the Tri-nations both on and off the field, can be attributed to some good work over the last few years from the rugby league authorities, though done with much reluctance and with limited resources. Despite limitations, the RLIF, with co-operation between the RFL, ARL, NZRL and other rugby league authorities have been able to ensure that the past three years have provided regular matches for rugby league?s international calendar.
In the past three years we have seen a Kangaroo tour in 2001 (the first since 1994), a Kiwi tour to Britain in 2002 and last year?s Kangaroo tour. All of the test matches on these tours were played in the rugby league ?heart lands? in the north of England in medium sized, modern stadiums that are regular hosts of rugby league matches throughout the year. These test matches have seen capacity, or close to capacity crowds and have provided valuable finances to RFL to repay debts incurred due to the financially damaging 2000 Rugby League World Cup. The matches have also been closely fought affairs.
Outside of the ?big three? test nations of there have also been some encouraging moves. This includes the establishment of the European Rugby League, with the catalyst coming from the RFL?s Richard Lewis, to help the development of the game in that part of the world. So far this has resulted in running the European Nations Cup which has provided regular matches for Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Russia over the past 2 years. In other parts of the world, the Mediterranean Cup, which saw the first game of rugby league played in Lebanon, has completed its third year and the Victory Cup in Russia has also completed its third year of competition.
Now that the calendar of international events has been set, it has been up to each individual rugby league nation to improve their competitiveness. There has been some good work in the UK where the RFL has employed David Waite not only as the coach of the Lions (now replaced by Englishman Brian Noble), but also in a role to set up the structures in the game to ensure talented youngsters throughout the country have clear pathways from park football with their mates to Superleague and beyond. This has included establishing an academy system for English clubs similar to the Jersey Flegg and SG Ball competitions in NSW that have continual turned out top level footballers. In New Zealand, Daniel Anderson has filled a similar role and a national junior competition has been established in the Shaky Isles. In France, a France based team is set to be entered into the English Superleague competition and it is hoped that this will enable a number of French rugby league players to become full-time professionals and also raise the profile of the game in that country.
In Australia, Rugby League is about the only sport to offer the full package. A competitive domestic league and a competitive international game. While Australian Rules provides a popular domestic competition, there is no further level for players or fans. Alternatively sports like rugby union, cricket and soccer provide great competition at the international level, but that is the extent of coverage that those sports achieve. The past few years have shown that rugby league may not have the strongest international scene, there are contenders to Australia?s title of world champions and it is only going to get tougher for the Kangaroos in the foreseeable future.
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