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Celebrating the Rugby League World Cup

Celebrating the Rugby League World Cup

(Opinion Editorial by University of Canterbury senior tutor Phillip Borell)

November 28, 2013

With a minute remaining in general play, Sonny-Bill Williams cops a high shot from English front rower George Burgess. This allows New Zealand one last set in the opposition half. With time running out on the clock, Frank-Paul Nuuausala sends a wobbly pass, out of dummy half, to Shaun Johnson who, seemingly, manages to change direction before the ball is in his hands only to step again and leave both George and Sam Burgess mesmerised in his wake to score the equalising try and set up the most important conversion of his career.

The range of emotions experienced by spectators around the world, fans of both England and New Zealand, and fans of rugby league in general, in the final minutes of that semi-final equate to the pureness of joy and agony that can be found in the sport that we love. This moment in history epitomised the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) and all the greatness that comes with the tournament.

Recently, there have been articles discussing the relevance and role of international rugby league and, in particular, the legitimacy of the RLWC. Tony Kemp and Phil Rothfield have described the world cup as a farce and a joke respectively. Kemp even used the analogy of ``you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig’’.

It is true that New Zealand, Australia and England are the powerhouses of international rugby league. But it is also true that not so long ago France and Papua New Guinea (the only country to have rugby league as their national sport) were genuine contenders. And then there are the island nations of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the developing Cook Island Kukis. Fiji played in their second consecutive semi-final (against Australia) following their breakout performance of 2008. Samoa and Tonga brought strong teams into the tournament but bowed out in a less than convincing manner, but the fact remains that they were teams that fielded NRL or Super League first grade quality players across the park and also a number of developing players out of the Pacific, Australian and New Zealand competitions. They had the potential to stir things up. The fact that they didn’t is not a result of a tournament that lacks validity.

The 2013 RLWC saw the emergence of the USA Tomahawks, a side that nobody thought could make an impact. Yet they managed to make the quarter-final against Australia after defeating the Cook Islands and Wales.
While some matches in the tournament have been severely one-sided, for example Australia’s 64-0 hiding of Fiji in this weekend’s semi-final and their demolition of the USA team in the quarter-final the week before, the fact remains that minnow teams are not there for the sole reason of dragging a competition out for extra weeks. If we look at the rise of the USA side, for instance, they battled to qualify for the tournament and it can’t be denied that the players in that squad (only three of whom are full time professional rugby league players) would be relishing any opportunity to come up against a Sonny-Bill Williams or Greg Inglis with the hope of adding to their career highlight reel by pulling off a shot on one of the biggest names in the game.

The key to the RLWC is development. Kemp talks a lot about the RLWC being made up of teams who have been created from the lower level stars of the NRL competition. While this is accurate (174 players in the tournament play in the NRL), a number of these players come from the island nations and it is these countries that gain the reward from being involved in the RLWC. Surely he recognises that more than 30 percent of the NRL first grade is made up of Polynesian and Māori athletes. This statistic will only continue to grow as the younger grades (NYC U20s and Harold Matthews Cup and SG Ball competitions) currently demonstrate.
He also mentions that the tournament would be more aptly described as a heritage cup, “where players have represented nations on the basis of family ties that could be described as tenuous at best”. I understand his way of thinking, but what I also see is the opportunity for players to trace their history and become part of something much larger than the game alone. Many players have talked at length of their experiences in the RLWC and the connection to their ancestry and the growth in their knowledge of their own heritage. How often do some of these players, who don’t have NRL experience, get to play alongside or against the likes of Jarryd Hayne,
Anthony Minichello or one of the most celebrated props of all time, Petero Civoniceva?

Another interesting observation made by Rothfield and echoed Kemp is his idea that the RLWC should be played between New Zealand, Australia, England and a fourth nation. Have they forgotten that we currently play this format every year in the Four Nations tournament? Kemp goes a step further and compares the RLWC to State of Origin. The problem with this is that the two are completely different beasts. State of Origin is State of Origin. It is a unique competition for Australian NRL players from Queensland and New South Wales. This cannot be compared to the RLWC. Also, it should be noted that State of Origin, for some time, has been recruiting players that are eligible to play for countries other than Australia allowing the continuation of the Australian monopoly over international rugby league. In all honesty, New Zealand does it too. The Kiwis and the Kangaroo teams for some time now have taken players who would strengthen Pacific teams immensely, but that is professional sport. So, why not allow those teams to have players who have the heritage credentials to strengthen their national teams as they have ours for so long.

The point here is that the RLWC raises the profile of international rugby league and that can only be seen as a positive thing. News media have been showing more stories (probably not enough) about the sport; Facebook, Twitter and instagram feeds have been blowing up about the success and failures of particular teams and people are emerging from their slumber at ungodly hours of the morning with the intention of witnessing history. This tournament goes beyond the Australian competition and allows the world a glimpse, albeit ever so fleeting, of what makes this the most exciting sport on the planet.

• Phillip Borell is of Ngati Ranginui descent and lectures on Maori in sport at the University of Canterbury. He is doing a PhD on the social aspects of elite sport.

© Scoop Media

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