As the International Rugby League (IRL) ponders whether to tweak the Pacific Championships in 2024, it’s interesting to note that another option focused on fostering rugby league’s growth in the Pacific Islands was first put to the international governing body back in 2018.
The US Association of Rugby League (USARL) Inc, then executive director Stephen Williams submitted its Rugby League World Cup Pasifika concept proposal to the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), as the IRL was known then, when it became clear to both he and former USARL chairman Peter Illfield that a plan for the United States and Canada to host #RLWC2025 didn’t have legs.
At the RLIF congress in 2016, the international governing body had approved a submission by Moore Sports International (MSI) to host the event in North America in 2025, despite the USARL voicing concerns that it was a volunteer-based organization with no financial support. Later, MSI’s #RLWC2025 plan was shelved when its England versus New Zealand game in Denver in 2018 turned into a financial bust.
It was supposed to have been the first of a three-year series between those two countries designed to whet the appetite of North American sports fans and attract them to rugby league. The plan was to then establish a professional league in North America with the longer-term goal of hosting the 2025 World Cup.
Soon after it became apparent that #RLWC2025 North America was a dud, Williams devised an alternative proposal in which the US was guaranteed to be an active host. The idea was drawn from his own experiences as team communications manager with the USA Hawks’ #RLWC2017 campaign when the Americans were based in North Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
At the time, the Rugby League World Cup Pasifika was based on a seven-year lead-up to #RLWC2025. The concept’s business goal was to increase revenue for the IRL while providing financial support for the Pacific Islands region. The sales and marketing objectives included promoting awareness of rugby league globally using the Pacific Islands ‘Pasifika’ central theme to promote rugby league as a positive influence on people’s lives.
Williams said the strategy was to increase visibility and participation by delivering a vibrant 2025 Rugby League World Cup that celebrated and highlighted the history of Polynesian and Micronesian cultures. It would include how rugby league promotes elite pathways, positive leadership, healthy living, family values and balanced lifestyle choices.
With the scrapping of the North America World Cup, the IRL led their own submission for France to host #RLWC2025. However, that decision has since turned into a logistical nightmare with the French government unexpectedly reducing funding which prompted FFRXIII to withdraw as hosts in May of this year.
Their surprise withdrawal left the IRL scrambling to figure out what to do about the 2025 World Cup, as well as its international calendar. Consequently, the game’s big dance has been pushed back to 2026, and the Oceania Cup rebranded as the Pacific Championships, was played in October and early November.
But maybe because of their hasty scheduling, or perhaps due to other planning issues, the southern championships were not as successful as the governing body had hoped. They did not attract the big crowds that organizers had envisaged, and the games themselves were not the most competitive. As a result, the IRL is considering changing things up for next year’s championships to make them more appealing to fans and more competitive for the nations involved.
Williams says he believes the Pasifika concept submitted in 2018 was sound, both financially and for growing the code with sellout games being played in New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea, plus there would also be matches hosted in Hawaii to, “guarantee USA participation while providing a measured entry into the USA.”
The Pasifika concept allocated games to all six countries. Each member nation’s administration would get $100,000 per game hosted by that country and more for the semifinals and the final, with a total of $4.1 million being paid out for all 31 matches played.
The blueprint also outlined ways to maximize major sponsorship and advertising opportunities by targeting businesses in the Pacific region, such as telecommunications companies, airlines, hotel resort groups and more.
It suggested the broadcast rights would exceed the $10 million paid by Australia’s 7 Network for #RLWC2017 and would continue the IRL’s strategy of building up the Oceania Cup, as it was then, into a profitable event and capitalize on the results of 2017, namely Tonga and Fiji both beating New Zealand.
As part of the overall strategy, the proposal included setting up a Pasifika leadership group of ex-players who would work with participating nations and volunteers to oversee funding and deliver rugby league programs. Among the players named were Benji Marshall (NZ), Petero Civoniceva (Fiji), Frank Puletua (Samoa) and Adrian Lamb (PNG).
Williams put the plan to RLIF officials but says he got only lukewarm responses.
“When I submitted it, they weren’t taking formal submissions,” he tells Rugby League Planet. “It was a concept proposal that was submitted with real concern over the pathway they were going down because they’d been guaranteed they would be getting $15 million for the World Cup, and that was what really mattered to them.
“But there was no money, and that was a real problem. It was evident to many of us earlier than it was to some others, and as a result, that proposal was written to say a) okay, this is a good idea, so could somebody please acknowledge that; and b) this should be considered seriously in anticipation that this does not pan out and we should plan for it.”
Williams goes on to say that everything about the Pasifika concept was thought through carefully, considering how it could produce a financial return but also guarantee the US as a host nation.
“To me, that’s the most important component,” he says. “Instead of trying to go into the US and knock it out of the park with a World Cup where you’ve got a number of host cities and the game’s trying to expand and be promoted to a US audience, which would cost you a fortune, you could have a measured entry into Hawaii.
“The US gets to participate. You get to guarantee that the US is going to be a host nation with TV rights, so you can work to get that broadcast deal six years out. Seven years gives the IRL and NRL time to focus on Hawaii and implement proper player pathway systems that can produce elite talent in time for the event.
“All the countries that participate in the Pasifika that are part of the Polynesian-Micronesian corridor would easily agree that the World Cup was going to bring ex amount of dollars into the economy, and for certain countries like Fiji and Samoa, they can then get the upgrades to stadiums and facilities that they need seven years out to make sure they’re ready for the World Cup just like PNG has been able to do.”
Williams says the lead in time is a critical factor ahead of any World Cup.