Less than three months since the heart breaking World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand, England rugby league has lost one of its best talents.
Sam Burgess has agreed a move to rugby union, with the hope of becoming a dual-code international at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
And you can’t blame him.
The lure of international competition is understandable to any player, and quite frankly, the organisation of rugby league on the world stage is nothing short of farcical.
After a brilliant World Cup, albeit in front of a sheltered audience due to the TV deal, we are still without any announcement of future fixtures.
The nations that won people’s hearts, such as Scotland, still don’t know for sure who and where they will be playing this year, and more to the point, neither do possible commercial partners or fans. Just how many tickets could have been sold around the World Cup had people known the international calendar for the following year.
Rugby league protests that an international game is imperative for its growth, yet no one within the game appears to take it seriously. The Rugby League International Federation is barely an entity, let alone an organisation capable of delivering high quality international sport, and we now have ever increasing differences between the rules played in both hemispheres.
The NRL have introduced a number of changes ahead of the 2014 season, and they are almost a code of their own, something which Australian journalist Steve Mascord eluded to in a recent column.
There remain questions over Australia’s desire for an international game. They’re the best in the world, and they have the best competition in the world, and the sport Down Under is high profile. They have no real concerns. Their focus continues to be on the NRL, and making that as commercially successful as it can be, and who can blame them.
If international league is going to work, it needs a proper governing body. Just how many roles does Nigel Wood hold? He’s the chief executive of the RFL, the chief executive of Super League, the tournament director for the World Cup, the director of the RLEF and the deputy chairman of RLIF. There’s no focus, and it’s a conflict of interests if ever there was one.
But realistically, even with an organised international calendar, rugby league will forever be fighting a losing battle when it comes to competing with rugby union.
Sure our game is better, but when they’re putting on regular internationals of quality in front of packed houses, you can’t blame any player for wanting to try it. You look at the Six Nations, and it’s about the event, the prestige and what’s around it, and not necessarily about everything that happens on the pitch. Its image and its perception attracts people to it. Yes it has an advantage with its location, its connections and its media coverage, but perhaps rugby league’s problem is that it has struggled to change its own perception.
We feared losing players from Super League, but if the NRL can’t keep English players in the 13-man code, what can?
It’s perhaps surprising that Sam Tomkins didn’t opt for union’s riches when he decided to leave Wigan at the end of 2013. Many within the 15-man code thought he would join brother Joel at Saracens, and that it was a “done deal”.
Tomkins may now be looking at Burgess thinking “maybe I should have done that”, although he is of course young enough to make the switch, should he desire, ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
So while we continue to wait for news on rugby league’s international calendar, there remains a far greater commercial challenge to improve the sport’s image, perception and funding.