Internationals A good artical about international rugby league.


League: Enthusiastic expats take passion across borders

Sunday December 10, 2006
By Michael Brown

Borat would have you believe Kazakhstanis enjoy sports like dog shooting or Gypsy catching. The reality is rugby league has more of a following in the central Eurasian country.

Sacha Baron Cohen, also the man behind Ali G, has generated a swag of unwanted attention for Kazakhstan with his spoof of a Kazakh national.

But rugby league being played there is no spoof and Kazakhstan is just one recent addition to the rugby league carousel.

According to the latest count, at least 40 countries play rugby league on an official level and more are likely as the game becomes more popular and international.

The list is guaranteed to surprise: The Netherlands, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia and the West Indies. Add in Serbia, Canada, Greece, Morocco, the United States and Malta and it borders on cosmopolitan.

As many as 22 countries sought to qualify for the 2008 World Cup in Australia, to play alongside the big boys - Australia, New Zealand, England and France.

When the first World Cup was contested in France in 1954, only four teams competed - France, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

Rugby league is far from truly global. Three teams will likely dominate the next World Cup but significant progress has been made in making the game more international. The fact the rules are a lot simpler than rugby union is a major attraction.

"There are some pretty exotic countries now playing the game," says International Rugby League development officer Tas Baitieri.

More often than not, Australian, English and New Zealand expats are the driving force. They get together, round up a few locals and, almost quicker than it takes Greg Inglis to glide down the touchline, a regular competition is created.

Television is the other major ingredient. The transmission of the Tri Nations final between Australia and New Zealand around the world can only help the game's profile.

"The demand is far outreaching the resources we can provide," Baitieri says. "We don't want to do a band-aid job so we're trying to get the right structures in place."

A curiosity factor exists in some quarters. In the United States, where people think anything non-American is bizarre and a contact sport that doesn't use generous amounts of padding is downright dangerous, rugby league has a niche.

They recently defeated Japan 54-18 to progress to the next stage of World Cup qualifying, when they will take on Samoa in a repechage match.

The US is seen as a potential world power but it needs to be remembered the same was said about US rugby union 20 years ago. Baitieri is more excited about China.

"Imagine it," he says, "1.3 billion people. If we got 1 per cent of that, it would be huge. If they ever get serious and take it on, the whole world will have to sit up and take notice. Shanghai would be ideal because it has 30 million people and a strong education system."

Rugby league isn't played in China, yet, although Baitieri has been approached about it. His main interest these days is Europe.

Baitieri has a devel-opment officer there to look after the 19 European affiliates and he enlists outside help but the growth there has caught even him by surprise.

Rugby league emerged in Serbia five years ago among disgruntled rugby union players. Now four clubs play in a regular competition.

It happened earlier in Germany. Expats helped establish a schools competition, which has since translated into a club programme that regularly host lower-level English and French clubs in one-off games.

Incredibly, 10,000 spectators saw a game between Georgia and Russia, and a similar crowd watched Georgia play the Netherlands.

Georgian television use their own commentary teams for the likes of the Tri Nations final and explain the rules to viewers.

The recruitment of Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens as Russian coach for two World Cup qualifiers (he also took them for the world sevens) provides credibility. The four-time NRL winner hopes to guide them again next year and has already invited two Russian players to the Tigers for trials.

It would be unrealistic to expect the balance of power to shift from the traditional powers in the near future but other nations can only improve. It's certainly Baitieri's quest.

"You can't expect Germany against Holland to be of the same standard as New Zealand and Australia because we have had 100 years' experience," Baitieri emphasises. "They've been playing it for five years. It's only realistic to expect it will take a whole generation for them to become more competitive."

For the record, Kazakhstan's national sport is listed as wrestling, along with a variety of horse pursuits, like catch-a-bride. A little weird, even by Borat's standards.

A global game

Countries where organised rugby league is played:

American Samoa, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Cook Islands, Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Fiji, France, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Malta, Moldova, Morocco, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa, Scotland, Serbia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Tokelau, Tonga, Ukraine, United States, Wales, West Indies.

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Imagine if?

In 20 years time all the nations mentioned in the article were in the world cup and all were competitive.Ahh Nirvana for a mad Rugby league supporter.What chance would Union,soccer or Gridiron have to match that spectacle.