Rugby league in need of international rescue after nadir of French farce | Aaron Bower

It is rare in rugby league that there is a united front on any subject but unfortunately, while the collective mood among coaches, players, pundits and even powerbrokers has been consistent, it has been one of disappointment as the international game underwhelms once again.

There is an argument to suggest the fallout from last Saturday’s Test between England and France in Toulouse was its nadir. Consistently treated as an afterthought by clubs and administrators, the circumstances surrounding that game were, as the former England prop James Graham said, embarrassing.

The Rugby Football League was unable to source a broadcaster for the game, meaning it was housed on SuperLeague+, the sport’s new in-house platform. Many were unable to access the streaming service. A sparse crowd in Toulouse watched England win 40-8 – but the cherry on the cake? An international Test match was a curtain-raiser for a Championship fixture between Toulouse and Featherstone later in the evening.

Usually in these situations, the sport tries to find the positives. But there was nowhere to hide here.

“You’d have to say it was a disappointing portrait of international rugby league,” says Rhodri Jones, the managing director of Rugby League Commercial, who also sits on the international board. “It’s been well documented and you can’t really disagree with that. The England performance was positive but the experience was disappointing and we need to reflect on that.”

That Test was England’s only mid-season opportunity to get together, a far cry from the regular camps seen in other sports where internationals are treated with the respect they deserve. For too long, league has allowed its clubs and independent bodies to call the shots, with no strength in decision-making at international level.

That means Test matches are simply squeezed in and while the international board has agreed to a new long-term calendar, there is still too many domestic games to afford proper mid-season fixtures.

“We have to fit in 27 Super League rounds, the Challenge Cup, playoffs and Grand Final,” Jones says. “You’re either extending the season or changing the domestic calendar.”

The clubs will not want the calendar to be reduced because that means fewer home games and fewer revenue opportunities. So the game is forced to make do with what it has for now.

The good news is there is a commitment for England-France fixtures to be a constant in the one free week on the mid-season schedule, with the rugby league hotbed of Perpignan earmarked to host next year’s game.

France are perhaps closing the gap slowly but surely, though with the other home nations barely having any competitive fixtures there is a lack of meaningful international matches. With Australia, New Zealand, Samoa et al refusing to travel mid-season because of the hectic domestic schedule, France are the only option for now.

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England at least have a clear end-of-year plan through to the next World Cup in 2026 and beyond, with Samoa touring here this year, an Ashes tour down under in 2025 before the big one the following year.

“Things might not fix themselves within a year or two,” Jones says. “This has to be a longer-term play.”

If nothing else, the shambolic situation surrounding last week’s game has got people talking. Within the England camp, there is understood to be grave frustration at the treatment of the national side: the fact they had to travel to France on a commercial airline that was subsequently delayed for hours has fuelled that anger.

Super League coaches, long perceived to be against the growth of international rugby league, have also voiced concerns. The St Helens coach, Paul Wellens, has called on authorities to “get a grip” of the game while Hull KR’s Willie Peters labelled the France fixture “embarrassing”.

What has felt like the lowest ebb for the international game may yet prove to be a turning point. But as has so often been the case, that will only happen if all parties pull in the same direction. Sadly, the chances of that happening are remote.

The Guardian