As the World Cup moves into sudden death mode, calls are set to grow for rugby league’s powerbrokers to do more for the development of minnow nations – and referees.
While the achievements of Scotland and the USA in finishing top of their pools and qualifying for quarter-finals against New Zealand and Australia deserve to be lauded, the truth is that they and whichever of Samoa and France play England next weekend are merely making up the numbers.
The other quarter-final between Fiji and the winner of the France-Samoa game is also really a play-off for fourth place as the winner faces the Kangaroos in the semi-final at Wembley.
By the time of the next World Cup in 2017, the game needs to ensure more than three nations have a genuine chance of winning the tournament.
Considering that most of the other 11 countries play little international football between World Cups, the performances of Fiji, Italy, Tonga and Samoa – as well as the Bravehearts and Tomahawks – are encouraging, while Papua New Guinea will benefit from having a team in the Queensland Cup next season.
Being exposed to regular Test matches and playing together more often would obviously help these nations and the World Cup crowds in England and France, in particular, and television viewing figures on 7Mate show that league fans have an appetite for international football.
The Kiwis match against PNG attracted 134,000 viewers, either live or on replay, around Australia on Saturday, while 60,000 watched Scotland come from 8-0 down at halftime to beat USA 22-8 last Friday.
Given the fact the Kangaroos weren’t playing, many people claim they cannot get 7Mate as they use Foxtel to access digital TV and kick-off time at 7am in NSW and 6am in Queensland, those viewing figures are considered good and compare more than favourably to Six Nations Rugby and Champions League football.
In comparison, last Friday night’s delayed telecast on free-to-air of the A-league match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Heart drew 137,000 viewers on SBS, although it was also available live on FoxSports.
Proposed changes to the eligibility rules outlined by this column on October 28 will make it easier for NRL players to commit to developing nations, as the likes of Penrith hooker James Segeyaro will be able to play for Queensland – if he qualifies – without having to turn his back on the Kumuls.
What those countries need now is more matches to be scheduled – and funded, as players in the USA, Italy and other teams are playing for nothing in the World Cup.
More international matches would also increase the opportunities to develop referees as there has been a notable difference in the World Cup between the styles of NRL whistleblowers Shayne Hayne, Ashley Klein and Henry Perenara, Super League pair Richard Silverwood and Phil Bentham and Frenchman Thierry Alibert.
Only Australia, New Zealand, England and France are represented in the refereeing ranks.
With the NRL still the sole competition to use two referees and not every match in Super League televised. Silverwood and Bentham appear more decisive and do not refer to the video referee as frequently – although not all of their calls have been correct.
The NRL trio also seem inclined to blow more penalties and both Klein and Perenara have been heard desperately asking for another camera angle or stating that they were unsure when used as the video referee.
However, the players appear more settled when matches are controlled by just one referee and while it would take a massive shift for the NRL to dump the dual referees system, the World Cup should have officials considering changes.
Hearing the video referee talking through a decision as he considers whether to award a try has been a revelation for those who don’t watch Super League but it has also poses the question of whether the referee would be better suited to that role.
The advent of an NHL-style bunker system would be an even better solution as the same panel would be doing the job at every match.
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