28 Feb 2018

League: Tonga rematch would be bigger than US exhibition

8:34 pm on 28 February 2018

By Jamie Wall

Opinion - Rugby league needs the Kiwis to play Tonga, not some gimmick match in the United States, writes Jamie Wall.

New Zealand fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in action during the Rugby League World Cup 2017 Pool B match - New Zealand Kiwis v Tonga played at Waikato Stadium.

After the Kiwis lost to Tonga at the World Cup, a blockbuster rematch is eagerly awaited. Photo: PhotoSport

One of the more puzzling scheduling announcements came through this morning when it was confirmed that the Kiwis will play England in Denver on 23 June.

Yes, that's Denver, Colorado. Home of the Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies and absolutely no discernible interest in rugby league. In fact, the irony that Colorado is a stronghold of American rugby union, and it was where it was initially presumed the All Blacks would end up playing exhibition matches when rugby turned professional. That ended up being Chicago, but more on that later.

However, this isn't a dig at promoting the game overseas. It's more about how it's being done and passing up a badly-needed opportunity to promote rugby league here.

Because, of course, the other irony is that the Kiwis and England were involved in the two most memorable games of last year's World Cup. Yet the reason for that wasn't actually really to do with them. It was their opponent, Tonga, who drew packed houses, not to mention unrivaled atmosphere for a sporting event held in New Zealand.

Tonga, right now, are the shop window for the game in this part of the world. Their feats at the World Cup (along with Fiji), were a slap in the face to the persistent notion that international rugby league is a joke.

Yes, the heavily favoured Kangaroos went on to win the tournament, but the enthusiasm and patriotism shown by the Tongan community here probably did more to inspire kids to play league than the Warriors, Kiwis and Sonny Bill Williams put together.

So why are the Kiwis jetting off to the middle of rugby league nowhere, when they could be filling up Mt Smart or even Eden Park for a blockbuster rematch against Tonga?

It's the same old narrative: treating the American market like some sort of trophy girlfriend. Make no mistake - this is a cash grab and a very cynical one at that. The Kiwis are at potentially the lowest ebb in their history, and instead of re-engaging with their community and riding the wave of Tongan support, they're taking the first money-making gimmick that's landed in front of them.

Maybe they've been enticed by the sellout crowds at Chicago's Soldier Field for the last two All Black fixtures in 2014 and 2016. Except there's one problem: the Kiwis aren't the All Blacks.

Test matches only sell out in the gigantic Soldier Field because of the All Black brand. All you have to do to find proof of this is look at how many empty seats there were for another test in 2015 between the Wallabies and USA Eagles.

It's taken the All Blacks well over a century to carve out the reputation of being the best team in the world. That's what the Chicago fans came to see, not just a game of rugby - plus they can count on the bottomless pit of AIG sponsorship money to promote it.

It's taken football (soccer) over half a century, hundreds of millions of dollars and the enticing of some of the greatest players of all time - think George Best, Pelé and David Beckham - to gain just a foothold in the exceptionally competitive US pro sports market.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis. Photo: PhotoSport

Besides, it's not like rugby league hasn't already tried to crack it anyway - the Australians played a State of Origin game in Long Beach back in 1987 and have only returned once for a test match, played on a modified football field.

The biggest problem with the US market is that everyone starts counting their stacks of cash before anything has even happened. That's why a professional rugby competition has yet to achieve any success. That's why exhibition games are poorly attended, or cancelled before they're even played.

What people always fail to see is that the US, like most other places in the world, is a developing nation when it comes to rugby and league. There are many honest, grassroots efforts to develop the game there that deserve investment, far more than a gimmick match in Denver that'll likely never happen again.

As for the Kiwis and the NZRL, it's fair to say their decision has come at the expense of seeing Mate Ma'a Tonga explode across Aotearoa once again. Which, given how badly league needs a good news story, is the biggest shame of all.

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