By STEVE MASCORD
I’D be willing to wager that most readers are aware there are two Rugby League World Cup finals this weekend.
Australia’s game against England at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday is even referred to in some quarters as the men’s final.
Australia’s Jillaroos take on New Zealand’s Kiwi Ferns is the women’s final.
Last Sunday I co-hosted coverage of the two women’s semi-finals on Sky Sport in New Zealand. The Kiwis have led the world in women’s sport – netball is so big there that Australia clubs joined their comp.
The NZRL has always supported the women’s game and as a result the Kiwi Ferns were the dominant side in the world for years. In Australia, players paid their own way to internationals and the game’s hierarchy held them at arm’s length.
Under the Australian Rugby League Commission, the women’s game was finally embraced. There was funding, media support, sponsorship and now television coverage.
And, as is often the case when you throw money and love at sport, there have been results. The Aussies are favourites to win in the early game this weekend.
It seems, from the outside, that there is nothing but sweetness and light about women’s rugby league; that everyone loves it and the future is blindingly bright.
But if you are around rugby league traditionalists, you’ll know that’s not true. They prefer not to speak up because women’s sport is a cause celebre in the mainstream and they’ll be pounded.
The fact is, women’s rugby league has plenty of critics who just don’t feel confident speaking up; people who see support for it as not much more than political correctness.
Let me do them a favour: let me repeat – and address – their arguments.
One, the standard is poor. Sure, some of the women in the World Cup don’t have ball skills as silky as Johnathan Thurston and Luke Gale. Some do. But “high standards” in the men’s game often gives us monotony. Five drives and a kick. Endless decoy plays. Suffocating defence. Standard is over-rated. It’s for coaches, not fans. We just want to be entertained.
Two, there is very little in the way of club competition around the world so the girls didn’t have to earn their national caps. True – but did you know the men’s teams in many countries – such as Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Holland and countless others, also play Test football before they represent clubs? “Top down” is an established development tool in this age of social media and government funding. You can assemble a national team in a new sport much more readily than finding 17 people in your local town or suburb. But I guess some of the people who deride women’s rugby league think playing it in those places is also a complete waste of time. Women’s rugby league allows us to start again and build the sport the way it should be. The men’s game is mired in historic inefficiencies like where we play, how much we pay players and where the games are show. With women’s league, we can start again and do things right.
Three, it will never amount to anything commercially. It’s very interesting that Canada were legged-up into the women’s tournament at the expense of France, when the Pacific qualifiers were considered so unfair that three teams boycotted them. The Rugby League International Federation has a stated aim of targeting G20 countries, of which Canada are one. Cleary, the RLIF sees a way of achieving commercial objectives via the women’s game. In Australia, Channel Nine has already shown women’s internationals on terrestrial TV with strong ratings.
Four, it adds nothing to the sport culturally and that we need to fix the men’s game first. This is the big one, folks. Like it or not, rugby league is seen by some people as a safe haven for anti-social oafs. It has an image problem, fuelled by off-field misadventures and drugs positives. Blue chip sponsors often steer clear. Women’s rugby league shows it to be just a sport like any other – played by people. Women’s rugby league could be the secret to changing the perception of our sport by outsiders.