With less than 100 days until the World Cup kicks off in England, rugby league’s international game finds itself at a crossroads.
A fortnight ago the Pacific Test weekend was played in Sydney and Auckland for the final time, becoming collateral damage in the NRL’s new TV deal with the Nine Network from 2023 onwards.
The new contract mandates that State of Origin II returns to a Wednesday night slot.
“I really believe it (the Pacific Test weekend) is a massive event,” Tonga prop Andrew Fifita told AAP.
“For me it should have more importance than State of Origin, playing for your country is the pinnacle in every other sport.”
Supercoach Wayne Bennett called the move “crazy” and he’s not alone in expressing surprise given the three men’s Tests had an accumulative Australian TV audience of more than one million.
“I thought it was a great week for all the nations,” said Kiwis halfback Jahrome Hughes.
“We had a sellout for the Tonga game and it was surprising they’ve scrapped the weekend. Hopefully they have got bigger and better things planned.”
The NRL say they want end-of-season tournaments and tours back on the calendar to fill the content void of rugby league from the grand final in October through to mid-November.
“This is something that the (Australian Rugby League) commission believes in and thinks is important to grow the international game,” said NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo.
With international fixtures now consigned to the end of season there will undoubtedly be concerns over player availability and welfare.
The removal of the mid-season Tests protects the NRL’s golden goose – Origin – when almost half of those playing for NSW and Queensland qualify for Pacific nations.
Part of the plans devised by the NRL and the International Rugby League will likely lead to New Zealand and Australia touring France and the UK in 2023 and 2024 prior to the French hosting the World Cup in 2025.
Whichever of the two sides stays in the southern hemisphere each year will play in a tournament with the other Pacific nations.
It comes at a time when the political picture in the region has never been more uncertain.
“We know how important the game is to the people of PNG and we’ve seen the emergence of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa and Cook Islands,” Abdo said.
“There’s a real sense I think of rugby league becoming a sport that resonates across all of the Pacific region.”
Outside of the World Cup, Tests between New Zealand and Australia are tied up in broadcast deals in both countries, but in most other territories everything else is up for grabs.
The IRL are yet to finalise an Australian broadcast partner for this year’s World Cup with less than 100 days to go.