IN 1996, before it was injuncted by the courts, Super League staged a World Nines in Fiji. Legend has it that the ARL’s Bob Abbott rode a bicycle around the country to inform players contracted to the establishment that they weren’t allowed to play.
The next year, when it was cleared to go ahead, Super League held another World Nines in Townsville. And later that year, the breakaway competition staged a 22-team World Club Challenge, which was so lopsided that St Helens made the play-offs without winning a game and Penrith missed out without losing one.
When the NRL was formed in 1998, every Super League innovation was instantly discredited. Rugby league was completely committed to winning back the fans it had lost during the war – the converts which Super League had coveted but failed to impress became an instant irrelevance.
Perth, Adelaide and – for a time – Gold Coast all disappeared within a season.
How look where we are, 15 years later.
Rugby league’s television deal is worth more than $1 billion, the new CEO – a Welsh banker – last week spoke at a Queensland Rugby League volunteers conference about his thirst for expansion and player wages are inching back up towards the stratospheric levels of 1995-97.
And what do we have back on the agenda? A Nines tournament and an expanded World Club Challenge!
The Auckland Nines proposal has been around for a year or more. Clubs apparently support it (they will meet today and hopefully make a decision) and some coaches – like Wayne Bennett – are opposed.
You might reasonably argue that we have taken this long to get over the Super League stigma and should press on with these innovations, learning from the lessons of the past.
But the great thing about the previous World Nines, and the World Sevens, was the “world” bit. A truncated version of our sport allowed developing countries to compete with fulltime professionals.
The World Sevens, effectively gave us Fiji and all the wonderful players we’ve had from that country since. It gave us Italy, who will make their World Cup bow later this year and Lebanon, and it gave us back the United States after a long period of inactivity
When we tango with Nines now, the aim should be to establish a viable circuit like rugby union has with its sevens so we can ‘soft launch’ new teams and territories into our sport. That would give us a sustainable new income stream, not just a quick buck.
Dean Lonergan’s Nines are about none of this – and that’s no indictment on him. They are about money – $2.2 million worth of the stuff. I have heard that teams will do camps around New Zealand including community work and that’s a good thing, but when you look at the altruistic aims and achievements of the All Stars concept, it seems this Nines idea is a little half-baked and expedient.
CEOs should today try to extract some lasting benefits from the Auckland Nines, not just more dollars.
The return of an expanded World Club Challenge is a different matter.
A working group comprising club bosses from Super League and the NRL has reached an agreement that next year’s WCC will be in Australia and the following season will involve six teams in the UK.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a middle eastern cities moves for next year’s game, actually.
Unlike the Auckland Nines, an expanded WCC has room to grow. It can showcase our game in new areas and instead of taking on international football, the clubs have worked out a schedule that will complement it.
If the major international tournament is one hemisphere in a given year, the WCC will be in the other.
There is enormous potential in the WCC, which has gone a little stale in the north of England in my opinion.
Many people don’t like the fact there’ll be nothing at stake when second plays second and third plays third but the idea is to make it like a “Test series” where the between the two competitions.
It’s hard to have a proper “champions league” when one year there are only two teams in it and the next year there are six, and then it goes back to two. That might come eventually.
All in all, it’s taken us a decade and a half to realise Super League actually had some good ideas – or rather that the people attracted by the breakaway had some good ones that News Limited brought to fruition.
But Super League also taught us that just doing something for money is a recipe for disaster and it’s a lesson we’d do well to bear in mind before repeating the mistakes of the past.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK