By Brian Lowe, Date: 20/2/18

Ever since the 2017 Rugby League World Cup grabbed the headlines, lots of people involved in the game, both directly and indirectly, have been madly charging around the place like bulls in a china store with one thing on their minds – expanding the game internationally.

According to them, we need to do build on the success of RLWC2017 and we have to do it now! They say if we don’t do it now, we’ll surely miss the boat.

In line with that thinking, a proposal was hatched for an England versus New Zealand Test match here in the United States, in Denver, on the weekend in June set aside by the Rugby League International Federation for internationals. State of Origin II in Australia is also scheduled for that same weekend.

Euphoric fans along with a bunch of my fellow journalists, mainly in the UK, jumped all over that idea and said yeah, let’s do it baby! Let’s go grow the game in the US, but then reality set in.

Not so fast said some NRL clubs not overly keen on releasing their players to make the long trip for the game.

Even though there are no NRL games scheduled for that weekend, the clubs’ reluctance is understandable because after all, they’re the ones who pay players’ salaries and are responsible for their players’ welfare.

Clubs don’t want to risk injuries to players when those guys aren’t playing for them because if they get hurt while doing so, it could potentially hamper their national competition aspirations.

The clubs’ hesitancy set off a firestorm, particularly on social media, with fans and reporters banging on the NRL, accusing it and club bosses of being navel-gazers and stifling the spread of the game to other parts of the world.

Well, here’s a newsflash – it’s not the NRL’s responsibility to grow the game globally. Its primary function is to run its competition in Australia, nowhere else. That’s why it exists.

Likewise, the RFL is responsible for its various tiers of competition in the UK and nowhere else.

The NRL and RFL are national governing bodies.

There is an international governing body that oversees the game from a global standpoint and that is the RLIF. So, if any organization should be under pressure to make sure the Denver game goes ahead, it’s the RLIF.

This whole scenario is not dissimilar to what the NHL did in advising the International Ice Hockey Federation that it wouldn’t allow its players to compete at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

It had similar concerns for its players’ welfare for the same reasons and guess what? The Olympic hockey tournament went ahead anyway and was competitive.

Perhaps even more to the point though is that these days, professional sports are sports entertainment businesses – businesses being the operative word.

It’s no longer about setting up club competitions and people playing whatever sport it is for the love of the game, it’s way more than that.

Sure, you still need to enjoy the game you’re playing, Bernard Tomic notwithstanding, but like it or not, nowadays it’s very much about the money.

When you factor in player salaries, sponsorships, broadcast deals and so on, we’re talking about billions of dollars. And it’s the players who are central to all of it because without them, there would be no competitions.

Like the NHL is in hockey, the NRL is regarded as the big dog when it comes to rugby league and therefore holds sway, and if its clubs prefer their players not make the trip to the US for the England-Kiwis game, their perspective is understandable.

However, it doesn’t mean the match can’t go ahead.

The basic premise for staging it is to start the lengthy process of building more awareness of the sport in North America in the lead up to the 2025 Rugby League World to be hosted jointly by the United States and Canada.

So, if it’s genuinely that big of a deal for the Denver game to be played, it’s up to the RLIF to make it happen and if NRL players are not involved, England and New Zealand can pick the best teams possible and get on with it.

Footnote: a decision is expected soon, possibly as early as this week