By Richard Cowley 16/5/2009
Move over Rugby Union, there is a new kid on the block known as Rugby League. It has taken some time but the tide might just be starting to turn in the Pacific with Rugby Union’s grasp over the pacific nations not as strong as it once was.
Twenty years ago if you said Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands had locals playing rugby league in organised rugby league competitions, you would have been laughed at and told to seek help. Fast forward to 2009 and it has all become the reality of Rugby League’s “silent” push into the pacific.
Rugby league has been gaining momentum in the Pacific since Tonga, Samoa and Fiji appeared in the highly successful 1995 Rugby League World Cup. The Cook Islands participation in the 2000 World Cup has also had a lasting effect. The performance of those nations on the World stage has provided a snapshot of the Pacific potential.
In recent times there has been a huge increase in players with Pacific origins playing in the National Rugby League and Super League. This has also improved the performance of their national teams at the top level. This has inadvertently had an impact on the game back in the Pacific nations. The increase in Pacific players at the top level has assisted with the growth of local competitions back in their homelands.
In the past Rugby League has dropped the ball and failed to continue with the momentum created from the World Cup. It seems that the Pacific has always been hit hardest by this lack of support and left to fight for itself. So the question needs to be asked: Has the status quo for rugby league in the Pacific changed?
The Pacific Nations will participate in a newly formed South Pacific Cup competition for the first time in 2009. What will make this competition a huge improvement on past Pacific competitions besides having the best players available will be the prize that awaits the winner. The winner will secure a position in the 2010 Four Nations due to take place in the southern hemisphere.
This has the potential to take rugby league in the Pacific to the next level if the competition is given the status it deserves. To date, no official schedule with dates and locations have been released. There is much speculation on where the games are going to be played. The most important piece of the puzzle will be how the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) markets the competition.
The 2008 Rugby League World Cup showed that fans are willing to turn up in numbers to international games between Pacific nations. The World Cup game between Samoa and Tonga saw just under 12,000 fans turn up to witness a highly entertaining game. The intensity of that game alone was likened to a Pacific version of the State of Origin. At the time many in and around the game supported the game continuing as a yearly fixture. Since then all has gone silent.
The RLIF have the opportunity to create something really special with the South Pacific Cup competition. To see the best of the Pacific up against each other could be ground breaking for the game. The likely participants will be Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. The RLIF should be looking to have all games televised into as many nations as possible to help the competition turn a profit.
With six pool games and a final the RLIF need to make sure the games are played throughout the South Pacific. This will help the competition gain exposure in major markets like Australia and New Zealand. This will also give the Pacific Nations an opportunity to host international rugby league games and grow the game. They will also fill the void created by Rugby Union’s decision to shelve their equivalent pacific competition.
The RLIF have the chance to change the status quo and give the Pacific nations the attention they deserve. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until 2013 when the next opportunity presents itself.