This weekend’s much-anticipated international between England and France has again been treated as an inconvenience rather than an opportunity.
At a critical time in rugby league’s history when the sport should be building a legacy in the after-glow of a home World Cup, clubs and players again appear to have prioritised an extended domestic recharge window rather than committing to the greater cause.
Wholesale withdrawals from both England and France men’s squads leaves excited fans instead preparing to witness a development squad which, though exciting in its composition, does little to capture the imagination to propel the sport forward.
Shaun Wane's England Squad Provides A Clean Slate After World Cup Heartache
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Boss Shaun Wane, so popular with the playing group who were instrumental in his new contract, says he is excited. But he must be so frustrated. Not that this proud rugby league man would ever show it.
“Every single Super League head coach, I’ve had meetings with all the CEOs, they have my trust, they all want England to do well,” Wane told the media on Wednesday, insisting he has the support of Super League clubs.
“The clubs know how important it is to do well and the players individually want to be in the England camp.”
The fact remains though that Wane’s only confirmed international this season will feature 15 uncapped players in a squad of 19. Against an opponent likely to be even weaker. The remaining senior players from an initial 40-strong squad have pulled out. It is the same problem that has long since hamstrung the British game in its bid to grow.
“The England medical team have confirmed that all the injuries were genuine and legitimate,” RFL chairman Simon Johnson said this week.
“If the England coach is happy then I am happy.”
IMG has insisted international rugby league will be central to its plans to “reimagine” rugby league, citing international windows like this one to be built into the calendar. Yet no other home nations are even playing in this international break. Most people are quite simply having a break.
Down Under there is no real appetite for the international game either of course. But they have Origin. And the intensity and ferocity of the annual Origin Series prepares the Southern Hemisphere superpowers for the internal series’, whenever they may be. Essentially meaning Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly now the Pacific Island nations, can effectively just turn up and beat England on the big stage.
Super League clubs either need to be fully behind growing the international game, even to their own short-term detriment where player fitness is concerned, or we just all agree to scrap it and simply unite again for end-of-year Great Britain tours like the good old days.
The one big positive this weekend is the opportunity for the England women’s team to be part of a double header and continue the encouraging forward momentum it has gathered in recent years.
And speaking exclusively to The Sportsman, former England international Danika Priim believes the RFL deserve praise for creating the platform from which the women’s game can shine.
“For the men it is a bit of a non-event, a bit pointless,” Priim told The Sportsman of this weekend’s fixture.
“France aren’t really fielding a team and nor are England. But in terms of the women’s team it is totally different because of the momentum building.
“We have had a strong start to the Betfred Women’s Super League season with two massive games, straight into the Challenge Cup and then straight into an international fixture.
“So in terms of building the momentum of the women’s season with it only starting a few weeks ago, it gives the girls a great chance to have a run out. For that reason it is a more worthwhile fixture than the men’s.”
One lovely touch from this weekend’s internationals will be the special Rob Burrow-inspired shirts worn by the players to support the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
“I’m a big Rob Burrow fan and always have been,” said Wane of the gesture.
“He was an unbelievable, destructive ball-carrier and always a threat. How he and his family are coping with this disease speaks volumes, the dignity and humbleness they have shown has been fantastic.”
Burrow has been busy supporting the inaugural Leeds marathon in his name, which takes place in the city on May 14th. Many of his former team-mates along with friends and family are due to take part. And he loves the England shirt by the way. Rob continues to be genuinely humbled by how much people are doing for him and his family.
Elsewhere this week the sixth round draw for the Betfred Challenge Cup threw up some cracking ties. For all the frustrations with the international game, the iconic domestic Cup competition continues to provide undiluted joy.
Holders Wigan and Grand Finalists Leeds will consider themselves extremely unfortunate to draw each other at the first hurdle, especially given they meet in Super League the week before, but it is a guaranteed blockbuster for BBC television.
The Beeb’s other selection is Castleford v Hull FC, though Catalans v Warrington, Salford’s home tie with Huddersfield and St Helens’ trip to Championship Halifax would all attract a huge amount of interest.
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