By STEVE MASCORD
AND so this is … a month into the French elite one championship … and what have you done, rugby league?
Christmas 2018 finds our sport with a split personality.
On one hand, we have a successful expansion franchise in Toronto and at least three more North American teams on the starting grid for English competition.
We have the emergence of Tonga, in particular, as not just a force in rugby league but of rugby league as a beacon for that country’s diaspora worldwide.
But on the other we have the increasing power of parochial interests in our governance structures on both sides of the globe.
The ‘Independent Commission’ in Australia only has a matter of weeks left in its independence, before the clubs, New South Wales and Queensland get positions on the board.
In Britain, Super League has been taken over by the clubs with Nigel Wood remaining CEO but no longer being a director. His replacement is representatives of the 12 clubs, who have invited Toulouse and Toronto to play at Magic Weekend as a show of intent.
As I wrote before the World Cup, the perennial club v country debate is at flashpoint.
The clubs are circling their wagons and the international game doesn’t really have a bargaining position as it bids to build on its undoubted recent gains.
A great example of this is New Zealand v England in Denver on June 23. Even though the match is on an “international weekend”, the NRL clubs seem to have successfully determined where an international will be played by delaying things so long that it is now pretty much too late to responsibly promote the match.
Clubs in Australia have stopped England playing New Zealand in the United States. Toss that around a couple of times in your head.
The World Club Challenge is going ahead only because Leeds bent over backwards to fit into Melbourne’s pre-season plans.
But on the positive side, Wigan and Hull are playing a fully-fledged Super League game in Wollongong, indicating that competition’s determination to broaden its horizons.
The reason for this is the biggest challenge also facing the NRL: the changing nature of the TV industry.
There is no longer any need to allow others – programmers at TV stations – to determine your viewing habits. Consumers can choose what they watch and when and as such the value of traditional sports TV rights will level off and then fall.
That’s why the NRL has spent $150 million on its new digital division. It wants to cut out the middle man and sell its content directly to consumers.
Super League hasn’t got that sort of money to spare; it is trying to broaden its consumer base and draw traditional rights income from more sources.
In the end, Super League’s approach will do more benefit for the sport even if the strategy fails. Fast-tracking the game in North America has been considered a desirable action for more than 70 years.
Conversely, the NRL’s approach will do harm even if it succeeds. Restricting the NRL to the same 16 clubs and propping them up in failing markets, refusing to publish player salaries or TPAs, focusing on an interstate competition involving just two teams and refusing to release players for internationals all just props up income without growing the sport one iota.
The best thing that can happen over the next five years is for the North American franchises to thrive to such an extent that they begin poaching players the NRL actually wants to keep.
At some point, the international game needs to find a way to generate income without NRL players.
When the NRL finds itself losing money hand over fist from TV rights and forced back to defend its south-east Queensland and western Sydney citadels by the marauding hordes of the AFL, it may finally see the sense of coming to the party.
But until then, rugby league has to learn to survive and then thrive without the Australian competition.
And that can only be achieved via the continent that looms largest in the bow of the good shop RL at it sails into 2018: North America.