Jamaica's under-19s finished seventh at the Commonwealth Championship in June and represent a growing enthusiasm for the game in the Caribbean. Credit: Courtesy Jamaica Rugby League
There will be no rugby league medals on the table at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games but chairman of the Rugby League International Federation Nigel Wood said the increased presence of rugby league nines in 2018 is an important step towards full inclusion in 2022.
For the first time a rugby league test event was conducted in conjunction with the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where Papua New Guinea defeated Australia 22-8 in the final and teams such as Jamaica, South Africa and Canada furthered their international development in the under-19s format.
With the next Commonwealth Games to be staged on the Gold Coast in 2018 there was some hope that rugby league would be fast-tracked to become a medal event but Wood confirmed that the earliest possibility of that happening is the 2022 Commonwealth Games, to be held in either South Africa or Canada.
A decision on whether rugby league is elevated from its current Category 3 status to either Category 1 or 2 will be made in 2016 and Wood told NRL.com that the next 12 months is crucial in building the case for nines to become a medal sport.
"Rugby league has been included in a sports programme review that is currently being conducted by the Commonwealth Games Federation, including all the Category 1 and 2 sports. Rugby league is currently Category 3 so to be included in that process is encouraging," Wood said. "That review spans 18 months and is set to conclude in December 2015 so we must use the next 12 months wisely.
"It is incumbent upon the RLIF to mount as compelling an argument as possible in that period to convince the CGF that including rugby league as a medal event in 2022 will be a positive move for the Games. That decision will be made in 2016 so the timeframes we’re working to are fairly tight.
"Our objective is to stage a second Commonwealth Championship on the Gold Coast – a higher profile event than Glasgow’s due to the status of the sport in that area – and in the meantime continue discussing the proposition of rugby league as a medal event in 2022 with the CGF."
Dane Campbell, a former NRL player with the Knights, has been a driving force behind the establishment of rugby league in Jamaica since 2004 and says the quality of athletes found throughout the Caribbean makes them prime rugby league candidates.
Jamaica finished seventh at the Commonwealth Championship in June care of a 12-4 win over South Africa and were competitive in losses to Australia (26-4), Wales (34-0) and Scotland (4-0).
They went within one win of qualifying for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final in Great Britain and will have to go through the USA Tomahawks, Canada and potentially Mexico to snare the sole spot allocated to Americas for the 2017 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Should they qualify for the 2017 World Cup and then return for the Commonwealth Championship a year later, Campbell has no doubt that Jamaica will capture the imagination of the rugby league public.
"It's that whole 'Cool Runnings' vibe," Campbell said. "They look cool, they speak cool and it's a novelty. They run fast and it's this 'Hey, we didn't know rugby league was played in Jamaica'. It's all those little things that add to the excitement.
"If they did happen to qualify [for the World Cup] and fingers crossed they do, Australia will come alight and they will become everyone's second favourite team.
"Ultimately that is what will increase player participation, to see an opportunity to travel abroad and represent their nation in international fixtures, but also to be able to come to countries such as Australia and England and test themselves and become professional or semi-professional rugby league players.
"The first four or five years were really tough but the growth in the past five years especially has been unbelievable. They've now got eight or nine high school teams playing regularly, they've got primary schools doing tournaments and the inter-collegiate system is a really big deal and there are now four or five colleges who are playing inter-collegiate tournaments.
"In terms of athletic prowess there's probably no greater nation in the world."
This year the Jamaican Hurricanes representative team has hosted matches against the Patriots representing the USA Rugby League competition and also the BARLA under-23s from Britain and is hoping to gain entry into the USA Rugby League in the near future.
With continued development in Asian nations such as Philippines and Thailand and the formative stage of concept teams such as the Latin Heat who are promoting rugby league for players of South American heritage, a place in the Commonwealth Games will showcase rugby league to the world.
"The widespread visibility that the Games afford will benefit rugby league’s international profile considerably," said Wood. "The sport will be broadcast throughout the CGF’s 71 member federations, more often than not on terrestrial television, as well as to non-Commonwealth countries primarily through the CGF’s pan-Asian and African broadcasting arrangements.
"We would unequivocally be an active partner in the international community of sports, which is a key driver for the RLIF today, and a part of an event that attracts a million spectators. That type of exposure would augment rugby league’s position established by the increasingly successful Rugby League World Cup, and would augment our capability to support international expansion in areas where the sport is currently not played at all or only sparsely.
"Furthermore, becoming a Games event would have a direct impact on many of our members, who would have access to performance grants to support their elite player pathways and national team costs, as well as various development projects supported by the CGF."