Unprecedented era for league: RLWC boss
The shock moves of star players to opt for Tier 2 nations over Tier 1 means the upcoming Rugby League World Cup will be the most competitive ever, according to RLWC 2017 CEO Andrew Hill.
Hill said there had been a significant spike in tickets for Tonga fixtures since a host of stars, including Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, had declared their allegiance to the tiny island nation.
Tonga aside, there will be some heavyweight talent lining up for the likes of Fiji, Samoa, Italy and Lebanon amongst others while all of Australia, England and New Zealand will again be strong.
"It's been a very interesting week; we've seen a lot of people with a lot of opinions talking about rugby league and in particular the World Cup and that's got to be a positive," Hill told NRL.com.
"When the international board changed the eligibility rules 12 months ago they always wanted the opportunity to be given to the players to choose between a Tier 2 and a Tier 1. This is an unprecedented time for the game where we're now seeing a player leave a Tier 1 to play for a Tier 2.
"Up until and including the May Test match, that was happening from Tier 2 into Tier 1 and most people just accepted that.
"What I would say is that for anyone who wants international rugby league to grow, we need to find a way to have the best players playing in the World Cup.
"We've now got the best forward in the world (Taumalolo) playing for Tonga, we've got the most recognised rugby league player in the world in Jarryd Hayne playing for Fiji and we've got the best player in the NRL as voted by the players themselves [RLPA player of the year James Tedesco] playing for Italy. That's not a bad statement for the World Cup."
The additional hype around the tournament following recent star inclusions for Tier 2 nations had led to a great week for the tournament and the sport, according to Hill, who said this year's World Cup would be the most competitive ever.
"2013 was certainly a turning point for international rugby league. Those involved in 2013, it was part of a golden decade of sport in the UK and there certainly was a buzz but I think it's fair to say the anticipation of this tournament has surpassed that of 2013 already," he said.
"There's no doubt this will be the most competitive World Cup in its history. What we now wanting to see is that it's the most attended and most watched.
"If you're an Australian and you feel a little dudded by Andrew Fifita the best way to show that is to come out and support them. Show it in Sydney when they take on Lebanon here [in Sydney] and for New Zealand the same.
"We are seeing a major spike in ticket sales for all Tonga games. There's lots of Tongans that are voting to come out and support what's happening by the players that play for Tonga. I think now is the opportunity for the Australian supporters to come out and support the green and gold."
World Cup challenges
Hill agreed the large disparity in player payments between the established and emerging teams would continue to present a challenge to players wanting to represent Tier 2 nations.
"It's a challenge for all sport, not just rugby league. I think from a tournament point of view we treat every player from every team the same so they all get the same per diem (allowance per day), they all get the same benefits of participating in the World Cup," Hill said.
"The matter of player payments is between the country and the players and I see that being a key challenge for those nations who don't have the resources of Australia, New Zealand and England.
"But from a tournament point of view it's not really a matter for us to make any comment on. I do understand there's a number of stakeholders sitting around the table to try and look at a better and more equitable outcome for all players."
This year's tournament includes 14 teams – the same number as the 2013 tournament, up from 10 in 2008 but short of the 16 that featured in 2000. However there were some huge blowouts in 2000, including a 110-4 result between Australia and Russia (who also lost 76-4 against England), and the Kiwis downing Cook Islands 84-10.
Hill said while growing the tournament further was a consideration, keeping the matches competitive was also a priority.
"[Expansion] is a really important consideration for the RLIF to consider. What we do want is a competitive tournament," Hill said.
"I think in 2017, 14 teams will provide that. The anticipation around Fiji, Italy, Tonga, Samoa joining the so-called big three, all of a sudden now we have seven teams that everyone is really keen to see how they progress.
"The challenge is unlike other tournaments, we don't want blowout scores and I'm really confident regardless of what 28 matches a fan wants to watch they'll get the very best players in the world playing and it will be really competitive matches."