Who needs the rest of the world?

If international rugby league is to develop, then we need to stop making such a big deal about State of Origin- right? It makes no sense- apart from New South Welshmen, Queenslanders, a few Kiwis who have been brought up to idolise all things Australian rugby league, and probably the whole of Papua New Guinea, who can get passionate about it? Is it really something to brag about when your game?s showpiece event is between two entities that 99% of the world?s population (and yes, I did survey everyone in the world) have never heard of?

It?s fair to say that priorities in big time sport often have more to do with tradition than logic. Try making sense of the fact that arguably two of the world?s ten biggest football clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea, each represent an area of only a few kilometres, and are only a few kilometres apart, in a nation that struggles to make a real impact on the international scene. Consider that a team representing not American, not China, not Russia, but Detroit, is probably the most revered in basketball at the moment.

Perhaps we don?t need to have China playing America in the next World Cup final in order to feel positive about the state (excuse the pun) of rugby league globally. Maybe if it ain?t broke, we really don?t need to fix it. However, it?s certainly not surprising that the folk in Jakarta, New York, or Buenos Aires aren?t on the edge of their seats at the prospect of Parramatta playing Penrith, or Cronulla squaring off against Canterbury.

But it?s easy to poke fun. Much the same could be said about Tottenham v Fulham or Blackburn v Bolton, yet these games have an international audience. It?s really not the headquarters of the club that should matter, but what that club represents. Fans often ridicule opposing clubs for ?trying to buy a premiership?, or ?not having good enough juniors?, but this rather misses the point. It?s the Panthers that matter, not the Penrith- the Broncos, not the Brisbane. In much the same way, Arsenal means Arsenal, not a small area of North London that is home to virtually none of the club?s players, and a minority of its fans.

Perhaps an unwholesome obsession with the round ball is starting to rear its ugly head, but I feel it has relevance. Football has two things that most rugby league followers desire- international popularity and strong competition at an international level, combined with an emphasis on club competition and traditional rivalries. It?s instinctive to make comparisons with rugby union, but these are largely meaningless. Union has a strong emphasis on internationals, with a muddle of club competitions that serve more as international trials than a road to glory in themselves.

The club-focused psyche of rugby league fans is entrenched, and not necessarily a bad thing, as long as international competition is autonomous from club competition. Endless disputes over player availability will not go away, but rugby league would do well to take a leaf out of football?s book, where even the best national sides usually contain players from several different leagues. In contrast, the Kangaroos and (especially) Kiwis have displayed an embarrassing inability, and often unwillingness, to select players from outside the NRL. By the same token, Australia has failed abysmally in even retaining the status quo in international competition, maintaining a vicious cycle whereby players are encouraged to play in the world?s best league competition, and then having gained residency, encouraged to play for the world?s best league nation.

And that?s where we come full circle, back to State of Origin. Karmichael Hunt isn?t Australian by birth or parentage. Neither are Tonie Carroll, Brad Thorn, or Adrian Lam. Apparently, if you want to be a Queenslander, you must be Australia. That?s how it works; players think about Origin long before they think about their country. This means that Australia retains something closely resembling a monopoly on fans and players, prospective new rugby league nations have no international competition to motivate them to improve, and potential overseas fans have no one to cheer for, and no reason to expect that they will anytime soon. But is this necessarily a problem? League?s core fan base remains Australasian; what more could we ask for, then an Australian club competition, complete with a token Kiwi team? Who really needs the rest of the world, anyway?

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