Blake Solly deserves a medal.
Self-interest is at the core of every National Rugby League chief executive’s role. Rules changes, salary cap amendments, player welfare initiatives – you name it – none are ever viewed from the broader perspective, merely the prism of their own club.
If NRL CEOs are ever united on anything, it’s that international football is a blight on the game.
Mickey Mouse matches in which players, fatigued after a gruelling club season, can get hurt are not something clubs welcome and probably fair enough too.
So it was shocking – not to mention commendable – to see Solly stick up for the international game the other day.
Once general manager of the English Super League competition and now South Sydney chief executive, Solly slated the proposed hybrid game between the All Blacks and Kangaroos as a “circus act’’ that threatened to further diminish the standing of test match rugby league.
“We have an obligation to help Tonga and NZ Rugby League. We should be promoting our own international game, not some hybrid exhibition match…now we’re going to devalue that for a circus act,’’ Solly told The Daily Telegraph.
At first glance, talk of a 14-a side game between New Zealand and Australia’s marquee rugby teams looked interesting.
The Wallabies, bless them, will hopefully become a genuine rival for the All Blacks once Dave Rennie gets established as head coach but, for now at least, the Bledisloe Cup series isn’t the spectacle it was 20 years ago.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) needs revenue. Scotland and Wales aren’t coming here this season and the chances the All Blacks might go to Europe in November look remote. There’s talk The Rugby Championship could be staged in Australia, but that remains to be seen too.
It’s right, then, that NZR are looking at other means of making money, having confirmed 25 per cent of their organisation’s staff will be made redundant. The staging of Super Rugby Aotearoa has softened the financial blow NZR are set to take for 2020, but it hasn’t stopped the All Blacks’ coaches, for instance, falling victim to wage cuts.
The organisation will get back on its feet again, though. Plans for a global season continue to go nowhere and we still don’t know how long South Africa and Argentina will stick it out with SANZAAR or what the post-COVID-19 broadcast market might look like, but the All Blacks will eventually be able to play on the world stage and to accumulate income for their parent body.
In the meantime, a made up game against the Kangaroos would generate a bit of money and interest, without diminishing the All Blacks’ brand or the primacy of test rugby.
Where the match did look a bit of a nonsense was from the rugby league perspective.
New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters was quick to suggest so, having been left out in the cold, with former Kiwis coach Frank Endacott saying similar. The surprise in all this was that an NRL chief executive would join that chorus.
The emergence of Tonga, largely at the Kiwis’ expense it must be said, has been a boon for international rugby league.
Often an afterthought, played before half-empty stadiums, test footy desperately needed a shot in the arm. Tonga provided it – thanks to wins over the Kiwis, Kangaroos and Great Britain – and hopes remain that Samoa might soon achieve the same, as more and more New Zealand or Australia-eligible players pledge their allegiance to their nation of origin.
The fundamental difference between the two rugby codes, though, is that test football is very much the pinnacle for one and club footy for the other. That’s why Solly’s assertion was such a stunner.
Either way, this hybrid game isn’t one to die in a ditch over. If it gets played, great. If not, no one will be too bothered.
Dean Lonergan, the promoter behind the proposed clash, might still have to see off a legal challenge anyway, from a man called Phil Franks who believes he has a patent on hybrid league and union matches.
We’ve all had a go at NZR over the years for being a bit staid. For not looking to innovate or diversify enough or simply give fans a few things to enthuse about.
We still don’t know what the international season holds but, at short notice, NZR were able to crank up Super and club rugby, with the Mitre 10 and Farah Palmer Cup competitions still to come.
This hybrid game might not get off the ground, but it’s nice to see our often-maligned governing body at least trying to offer us something different,
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