Ashes Return Headlines Breakthrough For International Rugby League

England will head Down Under for three games in 2025
16:00, 03 Aug 2023

The long-awaited announcement of a new International Rugby League calendar brings with it the usual mix of hope and scepticism. But crucially now, after a long period of uncertainty, there is also excitement. Let’s hope it all happens.

In a briefing to media on Thursday morning following a meeting in Singapore, the IRL announced the delay of the next World Cup until 2026 in the southern hemisphere, which was expected.

But the most exciting piece of news was confirmation of the renewal of an England v Australia Ashes series from 2025. There will now be strong, set-in-stone international series for England every autumn until 2030, with Tonga already confirmed for this year and Samoa expected to be the opposition in 2024 before England head Down Under to play the Kangaroos in 2025.

The women’s World Cup will become an event in its own right from 2028 to recognise the “phenomenal rate of growth” of the women’s game.


So what’s not to like?

Even the most pessimistic of rugby league fans - which at times feels like the majority - would do well to find fault in this big move forward towards making the international game a non-negotiable part of the sport’s overall calendar.

The crucial part of this international makeover is the backing of the NRL and its players. Like it or not, there can be no real progress without their full buy-in, and the postponement of the 2021 tournament was largely down to their reluctance to travel. Now it seems they are right behind what IRL chair Troy Grant is trying to do.

The restoration of series against Australia and New Zealand is just what both the game and its fans needed. Even though England’s cricketers fell short in this summer’s bid to wrestle back the Ashes, a thrilling, controversial series grabbed the public’s attention. Sport needs England v Australia, and it is scandalous that rugby league has been deprived of this for 20 years.

The Kangaroos beat Great Britain 3-0 in that 2003 series but it was tight, hate-filled, electric, memorable. From the first kick-off in game one, which saw Adrian Morley enter folklore with the quickest ever sending-off as he raced downfield to knock out Robbie Kearns after 12 seconds, it was all-out war. It was the kind of sporting theatre that international rugby league has inexplicably been deprived of since.

That GB side was full of icons, with St Helens legends Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe in the halves, Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney on the wing, the late great Terry Newton at hooker, Jamie Peacock in the pack, and a young utility named Kevin Sinfield on the bench.

It is time to start writing a bit more of this history, and 2025 Down Under can’t come soon enough. It will though be 2028 before the Kangaroos come to the UK.


As for the future of the World Cup, we already knew it was to be moved after France pulled out of hosting it in 2025 - a hugely disappointing moment for the game, and its growth in France. So a 2026 southern hemisphere tournament was inevitable, and at present there are two interested hosts, with a decision to be made later this year.

Stripping back the tournament to just 10 teams is a big call. There were 16 last year, and 14 in the previous two stagings.

It means that all the quarter-finalists from last year’s event will be there automatically, with the rest - including Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France, having to go through a qualifying process for the remaining two places. It will almost certainly yield a stronger product, with tighter games across the board and fewer scores like Australia 84-0 Scotland or England 94-4 Greece which did nobody any good.

It will, though, be a setback for those not in the big eight, with Wales especially showing promising signs last year. Where does this leaves Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and our bid to grow a truly global game? And we lose the romance too - Jamaica were a great addition last year, with some wonderful stories. The idea is for there to be regional championships in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific but that remains to be seen.

Much remains to be finalised, not least where the next World Cup will be, and that Samoa tour in 2024 is still to be signed off. But for an international game which has long been the sport’s Achilles heel, this is the kind of exciting step forward that rugby league has been craving.

England men’s series:
2023: England v Tonga
2024: TBC expected to be England v Samoa
2025: Australia v England
2026: World Cup (southern hemisphere)
2027: England v New Zealand
2028: England v Australia.
2029: tbc
2030: World Cup (tbc)


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

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