The introduction of the England vs. The Exiles match last season seemed an exciting prospect to many. So after this year’s series it’s time to ask, has it worked?
The main idea of this was to provide England with a much tougher opposition for the mid-season international than France. In that sense this has been a great success. Last year’s match was won with a try in the dying seconds and this year’s saw a tie in the series. Evidently, at the moment, the two sides seem to be on an even keel so big thumbs up to the RFL for coming up with an idea which could well help to develop the English international scene.
However, whilst it is good that they now have a fixture worth fulfilling, is the fact it is so close not actually worrying? Only Thomas Leuleuai out of the last two squads actually turns out for his country, yet our full squad minus just a handful struggled or failed to beat this team. It does not seem to be a case of a lack of ambition that our main international aim is to beat this team of NRL rejects, but simply the fact that Australia and New Zealand are of a completely different class. The idea is a novelty rather than a rivalry that compares to the Australian State of Origin and this shines through with a lack of passion. This just goes to show just how much of a joke international rugby league is, and whilst it is obvious to everyone that this is the most beneficial mid-season match available, given the fact that the Roses matches never built up an England squad, we can not get carried away by our moderate success against The Exiles.
For the RFL though, this is more than just for the benefit of the England squad. This concept is completely unique in sport with the closest thing being the rugby union Barbarians team, therefore the commercial success is also vital to the showcasing of rugby league. I have already mentioned the lack of rivalry which makes it no more than a glorified training session. There is nothing for the fans to believe in as some of their club heroes are playing for the supposed enemy who we are also encouraged to support to an extent. What’s more, if you take into account the booing of Sam Tomkins at the inaugural outing, it is possible to see how this game holds little meaning and will therefore struggle in selling the sport to outsiders. Perhaps it may be a slightly unfair comparison given how established the Australian version is, but round two of State of Origin was seen by 83,110 as well as by millions of television viewers across the globe. In contrast, an aggregate of 18,948 saw the English version which was broadcast in just this country. Commercial success? I think not.
So, what can be done? The future of our dismal international game does seem to rather rely on this fixture to aid development, so it must be made to work properly at least. Perhaps the only way to increase the rivalry is to give it time. As people get more used to the concept the Exiles will appear more and more to be the enemy although this could be helped by the RFL not showing them in the same light as our beloved national team, in turn, fans dislike will only provide encouragement for the players to turn this into a heated series, dare I say it, in line with the State of Origin. Assuming the playing side of things will come; the other issue is the commercial value. Whilst it is obvious that the Galpharm is one of few stadiums in rugby league fit to stage an international, it’s no use it being three-quarters empty. I recently read a fan’s view questioning the selection of locations and promoting the use of an equally good KC stadium citing the fact that the fans of both Hull sides, a city where the passion for rugby league and rivalry is clear to see, would easily fill it. Given how Huddersfield are hardly known for their record attendances this certainly seems logical. The final issue is that it was such a washout in the end. A one-all series draw because it was only played as a two match series is a serious dampener on the matter. Add in the fact that selection was limited due to club duties and perhaps club performance seems a better priority and the final game became utterly disappointing.
The verdict: This is a great concept; however it remains only a concept in its current form. In order to grow, it would seem far more logical, particularly given calls for a smaller Super League and the lack of international programme this year, to play a three match series at the end of the season in stadiums which can attract decent crowds in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Humberside, which gives far better preparation time. It is frustrating seeing such a brilliant idea being mishandled in such a way, particularly given the global success of its Australian counterpart, therefore we can only hope that the RFL learn to make the most of it, as for once they have actually come up with a good idea.