Ireland can challenge southern elite at World Cup – thanks to NRL players | Rugby league
The increasing gulf in class between rugby league in the southern and northern hemispheres could be epitomised by England being the only European country to reach the knockout phase of this World Cup. Ireland are also strong contenders to reach the quarter-finals, but a Lebanon side primarily grown in Sydney will be out to stop them.
European teams are making less and less of an impact at World Cups. At the tournament in 2000, England were joined by Wales, Ireland and France in the knockout stages. In 2013, it was England, Scotland and France. By 2017, only England made it through to the last eight. That was partly due to the way the fixtures fell – and the fact they were played in roasting temperatures. The conditions in northern England, with supportive home crowds, will be more favourable. The European sides have to make the most of any minor advantages they have.
There are three reasons why the gap between the southern and northern hemispheres is widening. The first is that northern sides do not have the same strength in depth. While England can cope with the loss of several top-quality players, the other European teams cannot match the Pacific countries for depth. The unwritten rules of international rugby league are as follows: the team with the most NRL players wins; the team with the most NRL and Super League players wins; the team with the most full-time professionals wins. When a team loses half a dozen NRL regulars – as has happened to Italy at this tournament – we see what is left. Withdrawals have considerably less impact on the Pacific countries.
It is also key to look at the players teams have in the decision-making positions of full-back, scrum-half, stand-off and hooker. Let’s compare the NRL and Super League seasons in 2020. Between lockdown and the play-offs , 30% of the 125 players to play in positions 1, 6, 7 and 9 in the NRL had been either capped by a country other than Australia, or were born elsewhere – mainly in the Pacific countries – and therefore likely to play for them soon. Many more may be eligible. Of those 39 pivotal players, 17 were New Zealanders, six Samoan and five Tongan.
In Super League in 2020, 80% of the 105 players who played in those key positions were products of the British game, and only 29 had played for countries other than England: six were French, four from Scotland, and three from Ireland. A third were Australian. There were 14 capped Tongan internationals in Super League, nine Samoans, and five Cook Islanders.
The make-up of squads at this World Cup is in stark contrast to the 2000 tournament, which had more Super League players than NRL players. Of the Pacific countries, only Samoa were close to being able to join Australia and New Zealand in fielding a team of full-time players. Yet England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all had 17 or more Super League players. Of the six full-time teams, four were from the British Isles. Now there are nine countries packed with full-timers: Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Ireland and France, joining England, Australia and New Zealand.
To compete, European countries need as many NRL-quality players as possible. England have half a dozen, as do Ireland. France have the next best thing – a team of Super League pros – but they are in a tough group. Italy are missing six NRL regulars, who are unavailable for various reasons. There are not many full-time Welsh players at the moment, and most of Scotland’s play in Super League.
Secondly, the Pacific nations are now producing their own players. Papua New Guinea are benefitting enormously from the Hunters’ decade in the Queensland Cup. Fiji will see their Silktails project pay dividends soon. Other than France with Toulouse, no European nation besides England has the necessary pathway for promising young players to get the experience they need without upping sticks and leaving for England. A quarter of a decade after development work began in Ireland, Ronan Michael is the only Irish product at that level. There are none from Scotland. Wales – with two League 1 clubs – continue to produce players: half their World Cup squad are Welsh born and bred.
The Ireland coach, Ged Corcoran, is adamant that this lack of player development at home cannot continue. “Every player in this squad is really proud of their heritage and we’ve got to feed that back to the kids at home. We’ve also got to change the processes and pathways programme, coaching the coaches and officials in the grassroots game, and most importantly the players. I’ve made clear since I took over. We need to revitalise the connection between the elite level and the grassroots game , feed some energy into it and spark something.”
Ireland are currently a European exception in that despite being without nine internationals who played in Super League this season, Corcoran could field a complete 17 of NRL and Super League players against Jamaica on Sunday if he wanted. He insists the recruitment of his NRL and Super League stars was simple. “It was easier than people think. Prior to the World Cup qualification, new young hungry heritage players were contacting us, begging, screaming to represent. I wasn’t asking them. They know everything we are about and want to be part of this for the next 10, 15 years.”
In from the NRL have come not only former Australia halfback Luke Kerry but Bulldogs hooker Josh Cook, Titans prop Jaimin Jolliffe and young Tigers second rower Henry O’Kane. Alongside them are a bunch of established Super League players, such as Wigan prop Liam Byrne and the Senior twins at Huddersfield. Halfback Richie Myles and forward Robbie Mulhern have won England caps; and centre Toby King has played for England Knights.
“It’s our strongest team since 2000 – it excites me,” says Corcoran, who is at his fourth World Cup with Ireland as a player and coach. “The players I’ve lost due to injury would have been welcome additions, but I’ m really happy with my 24. Between them we’ve just shy of 2,000 appearances in the NRL, Super League and Championship. We’re really happy.”
Finally, the socio-economic trajectory suggests this disparity in class is only going in one direction. Even without the inspirational impact of their NRL stars waving the flag, the diasporas of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji are growing in Australia and New Zealand. To the Instead, the lure of starting a new life in England and Australia – where the vast majority of rugby league professionals are nurtured – has lessened for several European countries. For example, the Italian, Scottish and Greek immigrants who went to Australia and New Zealand in the second world war or the 1950s are the grandparents of the current players. Those who left in the 1970s are their parents. In another generation, there just won’t be as many eligible heritage players. They will have no choice but to produce their heritage players own – or not reach the world stage.
what they said
In his third tournament, the Scotland captain Dale Ferguson is hoping for a calmer World Cup than the last one when the Bravehearts went through turmoil before and during the campaign. “As soon as you come into camp, we’re on borrowed time to get to know everyone, to build up team bonding with so many new players. But we’ve done that over the last two weeks. Having boys like Ryan Brierley and James Bell, who’ve had successful Super League seasons, step up helps: they captain alongside me, really.”
World Cup memory
Those of us lucky enough to have been at Workington for either of Scotland’s games at the World Cup in 2013 will never forget them. After an extraordinary win over a team of Tonga players who were transfixed by the icy night, Steve McCormack’s men then out an even less believable 30-30 draw with Italy. The Azzurri were devastated, the Bravehearts relieved. Of the Scotland team that day, only Ferguson, Matty Russell and Kane Linnett are in the squad at this World Cup and could meet the two Italian veterans Dean Parata and Brenden Santi again on Sunday.
Buzz about: Bailey Hayward, Scotland
Having lost Danny Brough to retirement and Danny Addy to injury since the last World Cup, Scotland are expected to field a half-back pair of Salford star Ryan Brierley and debutant Bailey Hayward against Italy in Newcastle on Sunday. Scotland coach Nathan Graham sounded excited this week at that prospect, given that Hayward, who would have been in the Scotland squad last year too, has won Canterbury Bulldogs Under-20 player of the year award and been promoted to their NRL squad for 2023. Hayward comes from a rugby league family .
Off the record
It’s seven years since Sol Mokdad was outrageously imprisoned by UAE authorities in Dubai, seemingly for organising rugby league in the state. In a wonderful gesture, last weekend Lebanon invited Mokdad into camp and let him be one of their substitutes for the friendly with Wales at Sale. He got on as well.
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