International route the only way forward

One week on, and we've had just about every conceivable opinion expressed on Great Britain's record defeat against Australia in Sydney.

A summary of my own thoughts on the matter would be this:

1. That one-off Tests on the other side of the world are a bad idea.

2. That the Australian Rugby League team is one of the best sides in any sport on the face of the planet right now, and if they played any other sport, the reaction to a result like the Sydney Test would be to laud them for their brilliance instead of concentrating on the failures of the opposition. Compare and contrast with Brazil in soccer. They only won the World Cup because the German side was one of the worst to make the final, didn't they? No. They won because they are a fantastic football team. And does anyone have the nerve to suggest that German football is on its last legs now, or when they were beaten 5-1 at home by England in the qualifying stages of the World Cup? No.

3. In view of the above, it is clear that Rugby League is NOT dead, or dying, so long as it can produce a side as awesomely good as Australia are right now.

4. The British game is structurally weak and filled with too many average overseas players, and until that is put right, it wouldn't matter if God himself was coaching Great Britain with Jesus Christ as his assistant. Blaming David Waite is pointless, the softest of soft options. Waite can only pick from the available pool of British talent, which is far smaller than that available to Australia. If he had been in charge of Australia, and Chris Anderson (or anyone else for that matter) in charge of Great Britain, would the result of a Test played in the same circumstances as this one have been any different? Somehow, I doubt it.

5. When it comes to hand-wringing and over-reaction, no sport does it better than Rugby League.

No time to lose our nerve The worst thing that could happen after the Sydney Test would be for the game to lose its nerve yet again on the matter of scheduling international events. It is one of the perils of playing a one-off Test that there is no immediate opportunity to put things right and instead we are left with months to pick over the bones of a wholly unrepresentative representative game. It is less than a year ago since Australia played Great Britain in similar circumstances, having travelled 12,000 miles to play a Test match without any warm up games. They lost, too. Admittedly by a narrower margin, but clearly the circumstances had an effect. However, a week later, thoroughly acclimatised, they were back to their imperious best in the second Test at Bolton. This doesn't just happen one way either. The last proper Lions tour in 1992 saw the British lose the opening Test decisively in Sydney 22-6 only to come back and defeat Australia in Melbourne 33-10, the widest margin of victory the British had ever achieved. This time, there are no further opportunities for Great Britain to restore their wounded pride and add some much needed lustre to their international credibility until the Australians come here again in 2003. As for Great Britain playing in front of the Sydney public again, when will that be? Your guess is as good as mine, and that it the real tragedy for Rugby League.

More more more Our game needs more internationals, not less. It remains the most obvious area where we could learn a thing or two from rugby union. The sponsorship rights, the broadcasting deals and the media profile that union enjoys over League flow from its international dimension. How many times must we hear Rugby League players of the quality of Henry Paul, Iestyn Harris and other recent code switchers talk of their desire to play on union's bigger international stage before we get the message and do something about it? These players aren't going because they desperately fancy playing rugby union all of a sudden - unlike traffic in the opposite direction, no one has ever put any barriers in their way to being able to do that at any point in their lives. They are going now because of the international opportunities and the larger sums of money available, both of which are linked to each other and both of which Rugby League could do something about, beyond offering a handful of key players a contract top-up now and again to keep them in the game.

A way forward Imagine an international cycle which included all the Rugby League playing nations in action on a regular and clearly structured basis, where the results counted towards something, perhaps qualification for the next World Cup. Where countries like Russia, Tonga, Samoa, South Africa, the Cook Islands, the USA etc, were all involved. Where the nations who can draw on full-time professional players, such as Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, embark on regular Test match status tours against each other, and where their 'A' teams, or in the case of Great Britain, the home nations of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, undertake to play only those countries whose players are part-time professionals. These games would not be second rate. They would be an opportunity for fringe players from the stronger nations to go on tour and gain international honours, while at the same time boosting Rugby League's international profile in places where a full tour by Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand is not going to be on the cards in the foreseeable future, because they are far too strong.

Avoidable madness At the moment, we have the truly bizarre situation of a nation like Wales, which has played only one international game since the last World Cup (against England last year) and which won't have a single preparation game this year, being lined up to face the Kiwis in Cardiff in a stadium which can hold 80,000 people. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the people who organise these things have a death wish for the game. I'm certainly not arguing against Wales having a game against a touring side, but for heaven's sake, give them a fighting chance of being competitive. We've just seen what can happen to a side which goes into an international match with no preparation, but here we go again, about to make the same mistake, and in front of an audience we are desperate to impress with the merits of Rugby League football. It is madness, and it is avoidable.

International attractions The power of international competition to grab the attention and imagination of an audience is clear. We saw it during the recent football World Cup, where even people who have no real interest in that game were swept along in the excitement. It is also the finest possible motivation for sportsmen and women to aim to achieve their best. Anyone who claims that interest in the domestic game is greater in Rugby League, that our sport bucks a world trend which flows in the opposite direction, might be interested to know that the traffic on this website went up on average by more than 30% in the week of the one-off Test, far outstripping anything achieved in the past on occasions such as the Super League Grand Final or the Challenge Cup final. Just one measure, and far from scientific, but it demonstrates that there are people 'out there' who most certainly are interested in the international game. The parochial view, that we should in effect abandon the international stage to other sports, until such time as Great Britain are ready to compete with and beat Australia, is a recipe for disaster. For a start, Great Britain will never improve without measuring their progress against the best in the world on a regular basis. Secondly, it would more than likely hasten the departure of many more of our best players to union. And thirdly, who is to say that there will be space the international stage by the time Rugby League feels suitably ready to demand its place back there, if that time comes at all?

Starvation diet In Rugby League, we are already starved of genuine international events. We have to make do with a haphazard series of one-off games which mean little to anyone, and which quite frankly will never engage the interest of the wider public. Even after 10,000 turned up in the union stronghold of Agen last year to watch France play Great Britain, there was absolutely no follow up, and no one knows when or if Great Britain, England or whoever will visit France again. Now, the French Test captain Fabien Devecchi has gone to union. We rely too heavily on the players to pull these events out of the fire. We hope they will achieve impossible victories without the necessary preparation, and when they fail, we blame them and those who coach them, because that is the easiest thing to do. In effect, we abuse the talents of players like Paul Sculthorpe, Andy Farrell, Keiron Cunningham, Andrew Johns, Shane Webcke, Darren Lockyer, Fabien Devecchi and others in all the League playing nations by denying them the genuine international stage they deserve. Then we attack them if they decide to look elsewhere. In actual fact we shouldn't be at all surprised. The players deserve better. The coaches deserve better. The fans deserve better. Rugby League deserves better. I believe it is within our own game's power to deliver better.

John Drake

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