Why Aren’t The NRL Pacific Tests Happening This Weekend?
Traditionally in the rugby league calendar, this weekend coming would have been ‘Rep Round’, where club football takes a backseat to representative games.
I say “traditionally” with a heavy pinch of salt, because rugby league has historically been terrible at creating a calendar and sticking to it: while the National Rugby League (NRL) has generally been good at getting the money-spinning men’s State of Origin clashes between New South Wales and Queensland going, everything else has been very much as and when.
Between 2013 and 2019, however, there was another addition to Rep Round that offered a different product: the Pacific Tests, which saw the likes of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands square off, usually in a Sydney ground packed with partisan fans, an experience quite unlike the week-to-week of the NRL.
For those of us who believe in the expansion of the game, they were a highlight, a spectacle that showcased at the elite level the multicultural and diverse version of the sport that could be seen across Australia and New Zealand every weekend at the lower levels.
In 2020, for obvious reasons, the Pacific Tests didn’t happen, and in 2021, they won’t again. Many, including myself, have called this out online and pointed the finger at the NRL higher-ups for not getting something going.
COVID was cited as a problem, but given that 99% of the players play in the NRL and are already in Australia, plenty weren’t having that. It looks like the parochial NRL, with its the time-honored, self-interested, club-first mentality, had struck again.
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The actual truth of the matter is a lot more boring, but might give a lead to where and how the Pacific Tests can come back in the future, in a more sustainable way too.
Previously, it was the NRL who chose to organize them, and thus it would have been appropriate to have a go at the league when they didn’t happen. Now, however, it’s not their job, and quite rightly: why entrust the organization of international football to a group that fundamentally is interested in the club game?
Instead, we might be seeing something that is almost unheard of in the history of rugby league: an international governing body built to last. See, in the past, international footy was done on an ad hoc, bilateral basis, based on whoever could get the games on, which is precisely why it was impossible to get an international calendar set in.
That means that while you were watching Pacific Tests that were sanctioned by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), which became International Rugby League (IRL) in 2019, what you were actually watching were a series of one-offs solely organized by the Australian governing body, the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and the NRL on behalf of other nations.
Because they thought it was a good product, the Australians were willing to (and did) lose money to get it on. Had they made money, it would have gone to them and not to the Pacific nations. While, obviously, it is admirable that they lost that cash for the broader benefit of the game, it was always a cost-benefit analysis as to whether the games took place.
Insurance, stadium hire, referees, travel and player fees all have to be paid for, and the old Pacific Tests were only as good as the organizers’ ability to find sponsors, make TV deals and, if needed, swallow the losses.
The global governing body had existed in various forms since 1927, but in practice, only became relevant to the story after the Super League War of the late 1990s, when voting rights were extended to Pacific nations and thus the membership became bigger than the closed shop of Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and France.
They established the quadrennial World Cup structure, which funds the game in developing nations around the world, and removed power, on paper at least, from the big beasts of the NRL and, in Europe, Super League, who pay the players in club football. The money that is raised by the World Cup goes into IRL coffers, who redistribute it around the world.
For the Pacific Tests to take place, it would require the IRL or the regional confederation, Asia Pacific Rugby League (APRL), to do all the work that the NRL used to do to get the games on, in the midst of a pandemic. When you factor in that the NRL has preexisting relationships with all the other stakeholders—such as broadcasters, venues and local governments—and still didn’t turn a profit, you can see the scale of the task. Then, additionally, factor in that, while players are largely in Australia, the sponsors, administrators and officials that make these games actually happen largely aren’t.
For the Pacific Tests to continue into the future, the structural reforms that place power in the hands of the Pacific nations themselves have to happen, and currently, they aren’t there. It can’t just be the NRL doing it on behalf of them, for either party.
You might think that this is arcane, but it is vital to rugby league becoming a serious sport with serious aspirations around the world. In many nations, for example, it is impossible to access government funding without a clear governance structure that handles sport internationally.
IRL are currently emphasising achieving full membership of GAISF (Global Association of International Sports Federations), alongside the likes of FIFA, the ICC and World Rugby, of which it is currently an Observer member. Should rugby league have aspirations of being included at the Commonwealth Games, or even at the Olympics that might well go to Brisbane in 2032, such things are vital.
While the #growthegame sentiment is well-meaning, it is this silent and largely tedious work that is done in the background that actually makes it possible for the game to grow. I can speak from first hand experience playing rugby league in the Netherlands that, without the IRL and regional confederations, there can be no sustainable, long-term growth that conforms to the structures that exist in most nations.
Rugby league, historically, has been able to get by with making things up, because only 5 nations played the game and they could usually thrash it out. If we want a game with 50 nations playing, then this is what we need to do.
“The Pacific Tests have been an important asset in providing nations in Asia Pacific a chance to participate in additional test matches outside of the end of year international window,” explains Troy Grant, chair of International Rugby League (IRL).
“Their origins were an initiative of the ARLC and transitioned to the Asia Pacific Confederation in recent years to conduct as part of their suite of fixtures. They were scheduled for 2021 and were to play a key part in the Rugby League World Cup 2021 preparations for participating nations.”
“Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic played a very disruptive role, requiring the Tests in this period to be abandoned. The decision was one made by the Nations reluctantly due to significant impacts on costs and commercial revenue in holding the events after they were compromised with travel restrictions and logistical issues, not cancelled as a request of or because of the NRL or ARLC.”
“Post 2021, the mid-season tests won’t be scheduled as there has been agreement reached to extend the end of season international window in a more strategic window without disrupting or further corrupting the domestic professional competition and being part of a comprehensive 10-year international calendar.”
According to Grant, those end of season internationals will form a key part of a viable, sustainable calendar going forward, one that funds the member nations themselves.
“The Asia Pacific Confederation has been heavily involved in the design of content for Pacific nations in the international calendar that has been developed,” he said. <
“The calendar is nearing completion and will have a coherent and compelling schedule of fixtures with work occurring on commercial support of the model. Expected revenue from the commercial models will be reinvested into member nations for continual development of the international game.”
“The delineation of roles between the governing body of Rugby League, the International Federation and the Regional body is vital. The Confederations are responsible for in-nation game development and commercial opportunities, coordination of regional tournaments such as the Oceania Cup and Pacific Tests. Now, their fixtures will form part of a whole of game international calendar that will help grow the international game globally.”
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