Big brain essay #3: Internationalism

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

Once again, the international game remains an after thought of the sport, even in a World Cup year and even on this personal rugby league web log. My World Cup sims are no different to when I ran them at the start of 2020 and I fully expect the Kangaroos to take home the trophy while Greece and Jamaica will be grist for the mill. There may be a few other bilaterals and Tests played in the run up to the World Cup but, while entertaining, they are of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

New Zealand will probably beat Tonga mid-year, especially if the six again is introduced by the IRL, and England should play France (or better yet, a combined Great Britain versus a combined European Union team) but will instead stuff around with the Exiles format that no one really wanted last time it was played. There will be a slew of smaller and newer nations trying the game out against other small and new nations. Possibly the biggest benefit of the recent pandemic has been the slashing of player payments for representative games which should make it cheaper to put on Kangaroos matches.

As it probably does every other year, the international game remains at an interesting crossroads. On one hand, rugby league is now played in more places than ever before. On the other, so is pretty much every other sport and they all have better management and more money and better cultural cachet.

On one hand, the international game is the simplest way to market the game because everyone has heard of countries, has a right to at least one passport and understands the basic principles of international sport. On the other, rugby league really excels at organising representative games below the international level (see State of Origin, NRL All Stars) that are considerably and demonstrably more valuable than internationals, in a way that other sports either won’t or can’t.

On one hand, 9s is an excellent format for driving the growth of the game, both in that developing countries can have smaller, less technically gifted squads and still be competitive, and because the festival-like nature of individual events is an easier sell to potential promoters and more in line with how (non-hardcore-sports) younger people like to spend their time and money. On the other hand, there seems to be little interest in 9s outside of the hardcore fans and its current pinnacle is playing in front of a half-interested crowd of 15,000 in Sydney, which itself may prove to be a one-off. The alternative is playing 7s, where there’s a living to be made and Olympic gold medals to be won.

Rugby league’s main advantage – other than the fact that it has nothing to offer philosophically other than its own self-propagation, so doesn’t get too caught up in tradition* – is that it has very few participants at the highest level, which allows the likes of Papua New Guinea and Tonga a stage that they would otherwise not be able to access. Of course, if rugby league really is successful in growing, then other larger and richer nations will come through and elbow those minnows off the stage. Indeed, a truly global rugby league probably has the same participants at its World Cup as the soccer and union ones do, at which point the sport loses its point of differentiation. If rugby league stays put, then we really only have a few nations to provide the bulk of revenue and the death spiral continues.

These tensions need to be resolved as part of a masterplanning exercise to give rugby league a higher sense of purpose than simply existing. This purpose will be the basis of league’s survival, a point of differentiation from other sports and cultural institutions on which to market and grow the game. The risk is that we may well conclude that we have nothing to offer, surrender to union/soccer and move on with our lives (union will simply evolve into league, perhaps faster without league saying “I told you so” on the side, so don’t worry about that).

The other quandry is what does rugby league intend to do with all of these new players. While it is extremely heartening to see the dangers players in Cameroon will overcome just play for their country or see clips on social media of league being played and commentated on in countries that have no right to have heard of league in the first place, what is the end goal of the seeds being scattered by the IRL, RLEF and APRLC across the world?

If you were an athletically talented African, would you take up rugby league, which is a big question mark but a very shallow pool, rugby union, already entrenched in South Africa, Madagascar and Namibia, or soccer, where FIFA is proposing a new continental African club competition, or basketball, where the NBA and FIBA is investing in an African basketball league. These new leagues might fail but soccer and basketball will probably get two or three goes at creating professional leagues in Africa to get at least one to stick – money be damned – before rugby league can shoot its first and probably only shot. I’d wager an IPL Africa T20 competition is more likely to gain a foothold than rugby league.

Is it enough to invest the limited resources the sport has so that people simply play rugby league for the joy of it and go no further? Will the talented be carted off to pit towns in the north of England or the suburbs of Sydney and put to work, allowed to return home for internationals? Will it be the reverse, with semi-pros heading from Australia and England to Africa to make a living, as they currently do in France? Are we really proposing that the sport can turn all of these new prospects – or even a tenth of the prospects that might suceed long term – into professional players and leagues? Given the sport’s history, that seems ludicrous but without that end goal, these new nations will struggle for World Cup qualification, let alone being able to position themselves to compete with the established powers.

Rugby league doesn’t seem to know what its doing or why it does it. It has no sense of its own history, beyond the few monomaniacs reading this, nor any real understanding of the potential value of its story. In lieu, league seems to be apeing the movements of other sports, hoping that it is this cosmetic change (unlike all of the previous ones) that will finally open the floodgates.

My view is that if you’re on the same strategy as everyone else and travelling at the same speed or slower, you cannot hope to overtake them. You need a different strategy (and some luck) to close the gap. At best, most people seem to think that league can make a living at the margins (see the ever popular “if only we could get 0.5% of the US sporting market” tweet), which is no living at all because the powerful will simply wipe league out and probably accidentally and unthinkingly. So do we keep doing what we’re doing now, watching other sports disappear into the distance, or try something new?

Rugby league already has a fairly blase attitude to the idea of nationality, a tradition that dates back to Dally Messenger, who played for Australia, New Zealand and Australasia. Players now regularly play for two countries because the international game is so shallow, there was no other way forward. You’d be hard pressed to find people who think this change is for the worse, as if Australia, New Zealand and England dominating minnows into perpetuity is a good way to get the general public in those countries to care about internationals again, although they do exist.

I’d suggest muddying the waters further and discarding countries altogether and focussing on people. Peoples and countries can have a lot of overlap but aren’t necessarily the same. The Tongan team that electrified the 2017 World Cup were nominally representing the Kingdom of Tonga but the players were really representing their heritage, that of the Tongan people, which includes their parents and grandparents. That engagement can be more meaningful than the arbitrarily drawn lines on a map.

If Tonga was conquered by, say, Tanzania tomorrow, the Kingdom would cease to exist but the Tongan people would continue. Should Tonga then be scrubbed from international rugby league? Would the Tongan players be roped into representing Tanzania? Would they then prefer to revert to their tier 1 countries? Would an exception from the rules, which only recognises UN-recognised countries and sub-nationalities that those countries have devolved a responsibility for sport, be made?

Who knows but the purpose of a thought experiment is to not think literally about the scenario in question but consider what the response might tell you about the deeper beliefs involved. Rugby league would be poorer for not having a Tongan team but presumably, in this instance, the Tongan Rugby League would subsumed into the Tanzania Rugby League because those are the rules and the players would then prefer to play for Australia or New Zealand. Only countries can play other countries.

West Papuans, the Basque** and Palestinians are peoples but not countries. The main reason for this is because some time ago, some powerful, generally white, men said it was so. The same kind of men made a distinction between Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland, even though none of them were sovereign nations at the time professional sport emerged in the late 19th century, largely because they were racist assholes who didn’t want to play anyone further away than Edinburgh or Dublin, and those divisions were more real to them than they are in other places***. That’s why the Welsh have a rugby league team that can win the World Cup but the Maori don’t.

If you want to point out that the Maori don’t have a country, then you might need to think a little harder about that proposition, perhaps in the context of the history of colonialism.

So who gets a team and who doesn’t? Who cares is the better question (I have my limits; a Confederate States of America team might be too far). If the entirety of twentieth century history couldn’t resolve at what point a people become significant enough to justify sovereignty, I doubt rugby league has the intellectual ammunition to do so. Indeed, the International Rugby League has outsourced the problem to the United Nations.

Steve Mascord will tell you that rugby league needs to tow the line of the status quo to secure government funding. Putting aside the fact that sub-national governments exist with their own funding bodies and that some companies lean heavily on a sub-national identity as part of their marketing and that some national governments put extremely difficult to overcome barriers in the way just for bureaucracy’s sake, what is the funding actually going to achieve? It seems hard to believe that any government would invest enough in league to turn it into a professional sport. If we want more than participation, I can’t be the only one who’s wondering how rugby league intends to nail the conversion from nothing to a sustained something. A plan of one step isn’t a plan at all.

Are the national teams just a show to get enough people into the game to start clubs which might become professional? Surely it would be cheaper to scrap the international game altogether and invest the money directly into starting clubs. The $200,000 paid to the Kangaroos for a Test match would go a lot further in funding teams in Lagos or Accra.

Is it so rugby league get some international recognition? If so, so what? League is never going to be added to the Olympics, after being beaten to the punch by union. The NFL has shown you can be a big swinging dick in world sport, especially in English speaking countries, without any international participation and the Olympics needs soccer a lot more than soccer needs the Olympics.

It’s obvious to me that international sport is the way it is because of its simplicity. A cursory listen to the Chasing Kangaroos podcast will give you plenty of stories of people who got involved in rugby league because its new and they can represent their country. Might more people become passionate about rugby league if it allows them to express an identity that they can’t elsewhere? Will it be more than sticking to the way it is now?

I don’t know but I do think that the idea of countries (nation-states specifically) is going to decline over the coming decades, especially as what are countries now get swept up into ever larger and ever more tightly bound market-states. Are we wasting our time investing in different European nations if the European Union ends up sending a unified team as a political statement to the 2052 Olympics? We could have a relatively competitive EURL team made up of Irish and French players right now. Would the 2053 Rugby League World Cup follow suit or persist with Ireland, France, Italy and Greece?

Don’t think I’m here to revolutionise international rugby league by putting New South Wales, Queensland, Yorkshire and co in the World Cup, even though some of those teams are demonstrably more valuable properties than any international side and I’d be as likely to watch the Maroons or Kangaroos compete at that level. But a World Cup featuring the Indigenous, Maori and whoever else can form a team could feel more rugby league, or at least more in line with what passes for league’s philosophy, than trying to replicate the World Cup of union, a monument to British imperialism, or of soccer, dominated by the world’s largest economies. Elevating the small and lowly into the spotlight is largely what the sport has to hang its hat on but should we make it an organising principle?

Perhaps the international game will finally live up to its potential and the league World Cup will simply become the Aldi World Cup to soccer’s and union’s Coles and Woolworths. If that’s the case, then let’s be clear about it and acknowledge that we’re not about the small or lowly and we’re in fact about the big and powerful.

*Thereotically at least, this should mean that the sport is not mired in tradition and can be adapated on the fly to suit new and evolving political, economic and cultural situations. The reality, especially in this time of boomer-led cultural ossification, is quite different.

**To drive this point home, the Spanish constitution recognises the Basque and another half dozen groups as nationalities within Spain. In theory under the IRL’s current rules, if the Spanish government devolved governance of sport to these autonomous communities, they could enter international rugby league competitions with their own teams. But because the Spanish government hasn’t, they can’t. It seems strange to me that this could be decided by something as arbitrary as where the bureaucracy assigns responsibility and/or that RL has adopted this rule in the first place, instead of something that could be more consistenly applied globally. The Basque currently are not represented as its own nation in any “official” international sporting event to my knowledge, but they have applied to UEFA to be granted membership along the lines of Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands. This is of course entirely hypothetical, because the Basque have a rugby union but no rugby league (So who cares? See above about thought experiments).

Compare this to Queensland, which has a rugby league (QRL) and a national governing body (ARLC), and ministers for sport at state and federal levels but no one who matters recognises Queensland as a nationality. Also consider Scotland and Wales, which are recognised as nationalities, have devolved responsibility for sport but have two competing governing bodies: Wales/Scotland Rugby League and the RFL, which is nominally responsible for rugby league throughout the UK. I doubt this strictly qualifies Wales or Scotland for an international team under the IRL’s rules because the governning body responsible for the team (Wales/Scotland RL) is meant to have exclusive control of the sport in that geographical area, which is obviously not the case if the RFL exists in an overarching role. As usual, people will probably just not worry about it because they can field a team, and we don’t want to ask awkward questions about why the rules are the way they are, otherwise we might have to do something about it and then who knows what’ll happen. Chaos, probably.

***Yes, history is more complex than this. You’ll have to forgive me for not turning this into a 30,000 word thesis on colonialism and the nature of nationalism that I am grossly under-qualified to write, to cover every nuance of this issue.