Australians are proud sports fans. They love their team to win and they love to boast that despite the small population the country can punch above its weight internationally. Many fans are also extremely knowledgeable whole others have a passing interest in many sports.
Which is why it is odd that the Rugby League World Cup is currently in Australia but you would hardly know it.
After all the “State of Origin” contests between New South Wales and Queensland has become one of the biggest sporting contests in the country.
Hosts the Australian Rugby League have tried to spread the gospel of Rugby League by hosting games outside of the traditional heartlands of these two states, which is to be applauded but it would appear that it has failed to have the desired results.
Games have been played in Perth, Newcastle, Wollongong, Gosford, Canberra, Darwin, Townsville and Cairns, which is to be applauded as the FFA never took the Asian cup to nearly as many cities when they hosted that event. However with the exception of good support in Papua New Guniea and New Zealand the crowds have been disappointing. However that is unlikely to concern the powers that be as it is understood all of the states outside of New South Wales threw money into the pot in order to have games played in their cities.
So was the choice of venues to do with spreading the gospel of Rugby League or was it simply to bring in the money to cover the costs of hosting the event? Some close to the game have said that this was clearly the case and explained why the broadcast rights went to Channel Seven rather than Traditional NRL broadcaster Channel Nine.
One thing that is clear having travelled inter-state during the tournament that is that there is little or no marketing of the competition around the country. You would hardly know that it is on.
Maybe that is to do with the fact that the tournament has run into a number of other key sporting events that have a far closer link to the Australian sporting Psyche, such as the Melbourne Cup, the start of an Ashes Tour and the Socceroos attempt to qualify for a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup.
Could it also be that the tournament as a whole fails to ignite the imagination? In truth most sports fans know that only three nations take rugby league seriously, and coming into the tournament these three were always likely to be the ones contesting the final, Australia, New Zealand and England. However a Lebanon team that is made up of predominantly NRL players of Lebanese descent has added a bit of a distraction; while at the same time questions the sports rules on international qualification as covered in our recent podcast.
There is no doubt the NRL is one of the top sporting competitions in the country, and one steeped in history and tradition, and marketed superbly, despite many off field distractions. Could it be that those same fans who support their clubs week in week out are too well versed in the game at international level and know that the only real contests are only going to happen when England, Australia and New Zealand meet, so have no interest outside of those games?
Has this tournament proved that it is going to be a very long time before sports fans take the Rugby League World Cup seriously? Does it mean that the sport as a whole needs to revisit the format of the competition moving forward?
The tournament was never going to match the FIFA World Cup which has now close to 100 years of history behind it, with the first tournament being played in 1930. It has not even come close to the Rugby Union World cup. This is despite the fact that the League version actually has a longer history.
Talk of a Rugby League World cup commenced in the 1930’s but the first tournament did not happen until 1954. The World Cup was initially contested by only four nations: Australia, Great Britain, France and New Zealand. The teams played each other in a league format, and a final was played between the top two teams. Further tournaments were held in 1957 and 1960 and then there was a gap of eight years until the next World Cup was contested. In the 1970’s the tournament was played on a home and away basis which was not too hard as there were usually only four or five nations competing.
Only in 1995 did the tournament increase in size with 10 teams participating.
Rugby Union launched their World Cup event in 1987 but from the start had 16 teams competing. Attendances were not great in the early tournaments, but since the dawn of the professional era and the expansion to 20 teams in 1999, attendances at live games have been higher than 80% at live games in every tournament.
In Rugby Union five nations have contested World Cup finals: England, Australia, New Zealand, France and South Africa with France being the only nation never to win.
In Rugby League four nations have contested their World Cup Finals, England (Great Britain in the early days), Australia, New Zealand and France. Once again France being the only team never to win.
Is it a case of the strong being too strong in League? As we saw in 2015 in Union smaller nations can upset the big five, when Japan defeated South Africa. Are upsets in League less likely, and that is why it fails to attract the fans.
Some will go to games because they are ardent fans and want to be part of such an event. Others will buy tickets out of curiosity, however to do that they need to be aware the event is taking place. Marketing and coverage of the World Cup has been well below what you would expect, and that has clearly had an impact on the crowds.
However, surely the biggest factor is no matter where a game is being played, at the end of the day people pay to watch a contest. In the 21 pool games at the Rugby League World Cup there has been one draw, between Samoa and Scotland and apart from that in 21 games only twice has the winning margin been less than ten points. (New Zealand 22 v Tonga 28 and Papua New Guinea 14 v Ireland 6). In fact the the average winning margin over the 21 pool games has been a whopping 32 points. The biggest winning margin being 68 points.
The tournament is now at the Quarter final stage so crowds and viewers should start to rise as the competition now becomes more meaningful, however the locations of the matches may well again have an impact outside of New Zealand.
Or is it simply as one journalist on the East coast said International Rugby League is simply not on a par with the NRL?