Rugby league came back to life in 2022. After two years of pandemics and cancellations and postponements in 2020 and 2021, we finally got a real year of football.
We made it. It looked for a while like we wouldn’t get a World Cup. There seemed like a good chance that the gods or rugby league adminstrators or another, equally stupid force majeure might deny us, but we got there.
And it was fine. Just fine.
I’m not sure what fans were expecting and I guess I’ll admit after a few years of build-up, I expected a bit more of a bang but what we got is basically what a Rugby League World Cup looks like. We need to accept that international rugby league is a hard sell outside of the heartlands, who don’t care and can’t be coaxed into caring en masse, and inside the heartlands, where they know its generally lower quality than their local professional club. It’s not going to draw huge crowds for non-home games. It’s not going to be competitive through the group stages (see also: Spain 7 – Costa Rica 0; England 6 – Iran 2). Bringing in the 6 again was a huge mistake. A cost of living crisis bit hard in a way that it wouldn’t have if the tournament had proceeded as planned in 2021. Hopefully the sponsors, a mix of crypto, NFTs and the borderline bankrupt Cazoo, all paid up.
But you’re kidding yourself if you think there’s an easier and better way to do it. If the organisers had dropped ticket prices, they would have been castigated for not making enough money and roasted by people who bought tickets early at full price. If the organisers had chosen to hold games outside of the M62 corridor, they would have been criticised for the lack of crowds. If the organisers had chosen to hold games exclusively in west Yorkshire and Hull and Cumbria and Widnes, they would have been pilloried for the lack of vision. If they did both, they’d get castigated for choosing the wrong venues anyway.
You’d get basically the same crowds if the games were in Australia (Canberra, Cairns and Townsville all putting on pitiful, sub-7k attendances in 2017) or in New Zealand (the quarter finals of New Zealand versus Fiji attracted just 12,713 in Wellington, while Tonga versus Lebanon was only 8,309 in Christchurch in the same tournament) and I’m yet to be convinced any of the Pacific islands have the kind of cash the IRL needs given this event is all that sustains them. The only place left in the world is France and we’ll see if they’re any different in 2025. I’m not raising my expectations.
We saw at just the last World Cup the massive and glaring sporting flaws of any super pool system. Even with the super pools, the average margin for group games in 2017 was still 32 points, and while that’s ten points better than 2022 (thanks six again), it’s also about 16 points worse than the average Super League or NRL game. At that scale, the benefit to rugby league in having Jamaica or Greece get belted more than offsets the damage caused by those extra ten points. We still ended up with pretty much the same quarter finalists in 2017 and 2022.
The organisers are selling a second, maybe even third, tier event that its fans think is top tier. There’s a mismatch in expectations, the source of all disappointment in life. This goes double so for people who have spent too much time inside and online thanks to a global pandemic and invested a lot emotionally in this tournament in the absence of anything else fun, or even just not actively bad, going on.
The World Cup is a long way from being good, let alone competing with the World Cups of soccer or union, and it’s going to be a long time before it is. In the meantime, we will have to endure this and resist the urge to slap on the band-aid as a means of building something real. Nations can build on the experience, even if beaten 80-0. That’s because they’ve been to base camp and can vsicerally understand the challenge before them in reaching the summit. They wouldn’t benefit from attempting the summit every year and failing miserably, but without that quadriennial World Cup experience, they have no idea of what they have to do to get to the top. Each tournament is an opportunity to build on the previous tournament’s incremental steps forward.
Most tournaments give us something new. Wales in 1995. New Zealand won in 2008. Tonga in 2017. Samoa in 2022. We’re overdue semi-final breakthroughs from Ireland, Papua New Guinea and Lebanon and we’re owed a return to historical form for France. This year’s minnows are the future’s powers.
What you don’t want to do is throw it in the bin because people claim online or in newspaper columns that they aren’t happy. They’re never going to be. Thanks to algorithms, clicks, likes and whatever other quantifiable hell Silicon Valley in the 20s chooses to throw at us in the guise of not-quite-profitable digital culture, complaining and the release of dopamine are too closely linked. There’s no winning. All you can do is forge on.
Australia won both the men’s and women’s tournaments, as they were expected to do, and were only briefly challenged by New Zealand. The lack of international play helped convince a lot of people that this was the tournament the Kangaroos and Jillaroos would be unseated but you only have to watch Origin to see the plane of existence that Australia plays on is different to the rest of the world. While Tonga, Samoa and Fiji have a few Origin reps, Australia claims the rest and moreover, can carry an Aaron Woods or a Jake Trbojevic or an out of shape Cameron Munster to a World Cup title without getting out of third gear (except against New Zealand). That’s because the Kiwis’ or Toa Samoa’s or Mate Ma’a Tonga’s 1-13 lineups might match, or even exceed, the Kangaroos’ but they don’t have the depth across the full squad. At the end of a long season, with everyone fatigued and, especially in Samoa’s case, injured, that depth matters.
The chasers may not be that far off the pace (England has more work to do, especially as the World Cup won’t return to the United Kingdom until 2033 at the earliest, at which point it may no longer be so united) but they need everything to go their way to challenge the champions. Without the wettest of sails and the strongest of tailwinds, Australia is generally going to come up trumps. Even so, Samoa finally delivering on their promise and their activation of the Samoan diaspora, as evident by the flags still on display in cars and on apartment balconies, even now some weeks after the final, is one thing we can all take away from this tournament as a success.
The women’s tournament was even less competitive and more predictable than the men’s but because it’s women’s football, no one cares. Brazil versus Canada was sick and something the men’s game could never deliver, so there’s hope. There was an interesting idea that England is closing the gap to New Zealand and Australia. I think the disruptive effects of the pandemic explain the Kiwi Ferns relative lack of firepower and the Jillaroos chose not to take their absolute razor sharp best squad (although Brigginshaw put on a performance for the ages in the final). The thing is that while the NRLW is semi-professional and moves to make its rep-calibre players into full-time pros, there seems to be no similar movement in the women’s Super League. Other than some well wishers, it remains to be seen where the money is going to come from to allow that to happen. In its absence, I can confidently claim that England will be no closer in 2025 than they were in 2022 and probably even further adrift. Indeed, with Samoa, Fiji and Tonga likely to join the fray in France’s expanded field, England will struggle even more to clear the middle class and take it to the top end of town. It will be fascinating to see if anyone notices, let alone does anything about, this discrepancy.
The year kicked off with the worst kept secret in international football.
Then we, mercifully, didn’t hear much from the IRL as the meagre attention afforded this part of the sport was dialled in to the World Cup preparations. Still, here’s a selection of non-World Cup results through the year, to give you a sense of the breadth of activity:
- Chile’s men defeated Philippines, 36-20, on March 6 in Sydney, Australia
- Canada’s women defeated USA, 42-10, on April 17 at Burnaby Lake, Canada
- Malta’s men defeated Montenegro, 66-6, on May 15 in Mosta, Malta
- South Africa’s men defeated Brazil, 82-0, on June 5 in Noosa, Australia
- Ireland’s women defeated Italy, 30-6, on June 11 in Udine, Italy
- England’s women defeated Wales, 32-6, on June 12 in Crosskeys, Wales
- England’s women defeated France, 36-10, on June 19 in Warrington, England
- France’s men defeated Wales, 34-10, on June 19 in Albi, France
- Lebanon’s men defeated Malta, 30-14, on June 22 in Sydney, Australia to win the Elias-Fenech Cup
- New Zealand’s women defeated Tonga, 50-12, and New Zealand’s men defeated Tonga, 26-6, on June 25 in Auckland, New Zealand
- Samoa’s men defeated Cook Islands, 42-12, and Papua New Guinea’s men defeated Fiji, 24-14, on June 25 in Sydney, Australia
- Netherlands’ men defeated Spain, 36-30, on September 18 in Getafe, Spain
- Greece’s women defeated Turkey, 8-4, on September 26 in Istanbul, Turkey
- Nigeria’s men defeated Ghana, 30-4, on October 2 in Accra, Ghana, to win the MEA Championship
- Greece’s women defeated Serbia, 28-0, on October 3 in Athens, Greece, to win the women’s Euro B South
- Wales’ women defeated Ireland, 44-4, on October 8 in Dublin, Ireland, to win the women’s Euro B North
- Japan’s men defeated El Salvador, 26-24, on October 9, in Sydney, Australia
- Germany’s men defeated Netherlands, 29-24, on October 8, in Voorschoton, Netherlands, to win the Griffin Cup
- Philippines’ men defeated Thailand, 34-16, on October 9, in Brisbane, Australia
- Brazil’s men defeated Colombia, 56-0, on November 27, in Jerico, Colombia, to win the South American Championships
That’s a huge improvement on previous years but that some of these wouldn’t qualify as actual IRL-recognised results and that this list would represent a quiet couple of weeks in international soccer, indicates that there is still a lot of work to do. So we turn our attention to our hard working administrators that have been promising, for approximately eight to twelve years, an international calendar of eight to twelve years in length.
Hopefully, one day, we will see the outputs of this conference that just aren’t the election of Abdo and V’Landys to the board (V’Landys promptly appointed a permanent representative in his place). Presumably, the new calendar has been held up by the collective bargaining process between the NRL and the RLPA. It’s a fairly telling state of affairs for the international game that a domestic issue like that could hold up the sport across the entire world.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the calendar needs to be complicated. They should be aiming to get as much game time as possible, against opponents of similar strength, for as many nations as possible, in timeslots that suit their home audiences and using that to build national strength and a meaningful inventory of content to sell witohut burning out the top athletes the sport has to offer. There’s plenty of formats to steal, and other sports have shown what does work (UEFA Nations League) and doesn’t work (union’s hemipherical approach).
If it were me, mad with dictatorial power, I’d be having four to six game tournaments at the end of each season, working to get back a mid-season Test window and then looking to lever that to three games mid-season in the medium term. I think it’s doubtful that there’s much more appetite than half a dozen games a year for international football when rugby league has been traditionally a club-oriented game and that’s where we’re realistically going to continue to focus our athletes’ efforts in the foreseeable future.
I’d like to see something along the lines of a World Cup every four years, a confederation cup two years offset and a pro-rel 4 Nations league every other year. Qualification to the Confed Cup – initially just Asia-Pacific (including South America) and Europe (including North America and Africa) but expanding to separate Americas and MEA championships as those confederations get established – would be open to any member nation that can pull a team together for qualifying but the top teams – say any top ten ranked teams to a max of six – would auto-qualify for the quarter finals with a straight knock-out from there to decide the winner.
The 4 Nations league would be, for example, England, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa in the top tier, playing a round robin with a final and the last placed team relegated to a second tier, which might comprise Lebanon, Tonga, PNG and Fiji, with their winner elevated to the top tier. Add a third tier of an international league of four (e.g. France, Ireland, Italy and Jamaica) with smaller geographically bound leagues of three below that and let countries rise and fall against similarly matched opponents.
The World Cup would remain as is, with qualifying determined by performance in the 4 Nations and Confed Cups, instead of having separate qualifying games played in suburban Sydney footy grounds. The mid season games would be bilaterals, arranged by the national federations on a flexible basis. New Zealad, Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands could organise a Polynesian Cup played over three weeks or if you want to call a three game series of England versus Australia a “tour”, that’s the only way that’s coming back as a concept. The economics and times have changed and there’s no room for rambling four week, 20-game sojourns in modern rugby league.
There’s an open question whether the World Cup should remain a festival, with men, women, juniors, wheelchair and others taking place simultaneously, or whether men, women and other formats should be split into separate events held in different years. Soccer and union do the latter, so we might see the women’s international calendar offset by one year from the men’s, so there’s a major men’s or women’s tournament at the end of every year. If wheelchair, PDRL and LDRL are spun into one package of World Cups, and various junior grades into another, there could be a World Cup every year, albeit some more heavily targetted at rugby league perverts, rather than a wider audience of normal people, than others.
The formats aren’t as important (I’ve rattled mine off so I stop thinking about it) as committing to playing international football in the short term and committing to the formats, whatever shape they take, in the medium to long term to give them some tradition and value. What we’ll probably get is the usual – whinging about releasing players, whinging about sub-standard facilities, whinging that it doesn’t matter, whinging about mismatched opponents, whinging about travel – with formats that don’t quite fit the vibe (see also: the NRL All Stars taking eight goes before realising Indigenous versus Maori was the obvious choice; women’s Origin moving to two games, instead of three, in 2023). The people in charge will turn over, the newcomers will want to make their stamp on the game and we’ll start all over again.
In the meantime, we look to 2025.
Plus ça change.
Some self-indulgent content
This is the sixth season I’ve covered rugby league and I’ve been fairly studious about spending as little time navel gazing as possible, usually limiting myself to a tweet or two at the end of the season to thank people for reading, instead of long diatribes about me, the protagonist of the universe. Unfortunately, that ends here.
The short story is that I’m about to have a second kid, clicks were down this year about 40% on last year, the first decline of any magnitude since I started, and I’m pretty tired.
I put the decline down to a bunch of reasons. Twitter’s algorithm has probably changed in a way that doesn’t suit trying to promote my work and I never built an audience on any other platform because Facebook is pay for access, Instagram doesn’t let you post links and I don’t make videos. A large part of the Twitter audience I was talking to a year or two ago have moved on to other, probably better, things that aren’t Twitter.
Even though I mimicked a lot of the structure that had worked last year, I’m fairly confident the quality was lower. The second most popular piece in 2022, almost the most popular, was about Brodie Croft. While I stand by my conclusions, which I think have been wonderfully borne out by reality, it wasn’t pitched well and the stats work needed more polish. I also discovered that I lack the capacity to put a screaming toddler to bed while people are publicly questioning my intelligence because they’ve taken exception to something I’ve written. Fortunately, the mute button exists but unfortunately, I am still very tired.
I didn’t need to write about Bluey and I blame Richard for speaking that into existence. I didn’t particularly enjoy criticising Andrew Voss, either in that piece or to him online for being a prick about unemployed protesters, but there’s clearly something gone awry there.
There’s not much left to squeeze out of the regime of V’Landys, Abdo and co. It’s been pleasant watching the tide turn very slowly against the people I’ve been criticising relentlessly for three years, which is patently the work of a nutjob. Everyone now knows who they are and what they stand for and I think I originated at least some of that, although much of the material was just there, waiting to be put together. The funny thing is that, had they applied even the slightest of pressure on me, I would’ve folded and the idiocy wouldn’t have been as obvious. Unless they had Twitter shadowban me, which seems even more ridiculous than thinking I had any impact in the first place, they never even bothered.
I was probably about as accurate as I’ve ever been in predictions, which helps when 2022 is a copy+paste of 2021, and still saw a steep drop-off in general interest, which proably tells you something about the Take economy. I also missed having a viral post – still more three or four times more read than anything else I’ve ever done – that I sacrificed four to six hours’ sleep to write (and several more to write this).
This is not a regisnation letter but I am going to take a break in 2023. I don’t know how long it will last and I don’t know if I’ll be back. I may be back in February for season preview season, although that seems like a heroic proposition given that’s when the next kid is due and I will have to relearn all the newborn stuff again. I may be back later in the year when things have stabilised. I may be back in 2024. I may not be back because I’ll be honest that once the rubber band snaps, it’s going to be hard to put back together.
In the meantime, factoring in the above and the well publicised instability of the one social media platform I have, I do have a Substack that I’ve been writing for infrequently since late 2021. I still have no real idea of what to do with it, even 18 months later, but it is likely that in the event of a Twitterpocalypse, the end of pythagonrl dot com or just a brief respite from either, that I will be posting something there on occasion.
So if you want to follow me to the next thing, I’d suggest subscribing so it comes to your inbox. If Twitter goes away, I may even turn comments on.
Thanks for reading.
Postscript: I took a couple days off and what am I meant to do with this kind of information? Really.
Just never a dull moment. For what its worth, I wrote about perpetual licencing three months ago. Nice of them to catch up.
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