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The International Rugby League (IRL) and Rugby Football League (RFL) have both been criticized recently for decisions they have made regarding international games and domestic competitions, respectively, but is that criticism out of line?

The IRL has been under the hammer for the past year since announcing that the 2025 Rugby League World Cup would be pushed back to 2026 and that the number of men’s teams will be cut from 16 to 10.

In another change, the IRL decided that international rankings will play a major role for qualifiers for future World Cups. The top eight ranked men’s teams will automatically qualify, and they will have to be full members of the IRL.

These changes were brought on by France unexpectedly pulling out as the host of #RLWC2025. That one thing has really upset the apple cart.

Another thing that has become controversial, although there’s no reason it should be, is Samoa’s tour of England this northern autumn. One could have assumed that news would have pleased fans of the game, but no, again the IRL is getting some stick over it. The reason for the criticism is that the Samoans will play two matches against the English and not three as Tonga did in 2023. That’s a reason to have a go at the IRL? Really?

As for the RFL, it has been copping flak ever since it announced in 2022 that it and Super League Europe had agreed to a 12-year strategic partnership with US-based media company IMG to “restructure and reimagine” rugby league in the UK.

The RFL said in a statement at the time that the reason for the collaboration was “to maximise rugby league’s commercial potential for long-term growth, build deeper relationships with fans and attract new audiences.”

In the ensuing couple of years though, those same fans in the UK have had precious little in the way of positive things to say about IMG’s new format for deciding which teams should be in Super League starting in 2025. It has replaced the old promotion-relegation system with a grading system which considers things like attendance, catchment area and facilities.

“We need to have the best, in the broadest sense, in the top division,” is how Rugby League commercial chief Rhodri Jones explained it to the League Express podcast last month. Reading between the lines, what he was saying is that for Super League to be the top tier in the domestic competition in the UK, it can’t afford to have sub-par teams in it. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that logic.

But perhaps IRL chairman Troy Grant summed things up the best last year when he said that rugby league still has some way to go to get to the place where the IRL wants it to be, and therein lies the issue at the heart of the ongoing kerfuffle.

The reality is that apart from two states in Australia and Papua New Guinea, rugby league does not rank as a leading sport anywhere and that right there is what many fans of the game either don’t get, or conveniently ignore.

Rugby League dominates in Queensland and New South Wales and rates well in the Australian Capital Territory, but in every other state in the country and the Northern Territory, Australian Rules Football (AFL) is the big kahuna.

In New Zealand, rugby union rules the roost and has always done so. To just about every Kiwi, the All Blacks are the be all and end all of sport, period. Rugby League is ranked #4 in the Shaky Isles by Topend Sports.

It’s a similar story in the South Pacific where league exists in Tonga, Samao and Fiji, but it plays second fiddle to union in all those island nations. It’s #1 in Papua New Guinea, but that country is categorized as one of the world’s least developed countries by Nikkei Asia, so it probably doesn’t really matter how rugby league rates there.

In Great Britain, it’s not even close. Soccer, or football to them, is by far and away the top dog ahead of golf, tennis, cricket and rugby union. A list of the most popular sports in the UK by Magic Sports has rugby league ranked at #14.

That says something about the game doesn’t it, as that is where it was invented.

In France, a list of the country’s top 14 sports by Snippets of Paris does not include rugby league, although it is ranked #11 there by Wikipedia. In the rest of Europe, soccer, basketball and tennis are the top three sports followed by rugby union, while again, rugby league doesn’t make the cut.

In North America, rugby league does not make it into the top 20 on a list of the top US sports by Gallup. It’s not much different in South America and Africa. In many countries on those two continents, rugby union ranks highly, but not so rugby league. And to cap it off, rugby league in the Americas, most of Europe and Africa is an amateur sport.

To put things in perspective, a check of half a dozen random lists of top sports in the world shows that rugby league does not rank in the top 20 anywhere other than the few places we’ve listed.

The best it does is #40 on a list of the 50 most popular sports in the world published by the blog The Hoppost.

All of this begs the question – how relevant is rugby league in the scheme of things? It’s quite possible that the IRL and RFL know the answer, so they don’t pretend that rugby league is something it’s not. And maybe they are doing what they can to promote the game with the resources that are available to them, so constantly criticizing them for that is unwarranted.

And just maybe, many fans of the game need a reality check. It might serve them well to acknowledge that while they may see rugby league as being the best sport in the world, that is not how just about everyone else on the planet sees it, therefore criticizing the national governing bodies is out of line.

Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others. Brian has his own YouTube channel @brianlowe5567 where he posts his interviews for Rugby League Planet. Be sure to check it out and subscribe.