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How the Denver Test debate has strengthened the international game

NRL clubs are planning to appoint an observer to RLIF board meetings in a move aimed at avoiding a repeat of the row over the scheduling of the June 23 Test in Denver between New Zealand and England.

The Test, which is the first game in a three-year deal between the two nations and 2025 World Cup backers Moore Sports, is now almost certain to go ahead at Mile High Stadium on the standalone representative weekend – thanks largely to the efforts of the RLPA.

The game should be embracing the opportunity to break into the North American market but poor communication and planning has created a sense of negativity about the Denver Test.

However, the NRL and its 16 clubs are not opposed to international football – as has been portrayed in England – and they point to the establishment of the Pacific Test and creation of the standalone representative weekend as examples of their support.

In addition, the NRL funds the Australian team to the tune of $340,000 in player payments per Test and until this year had been contributing $250,000 towards the match fees for the Kiwis too - making trans-Tasman Tests cost prohibitive.

After the debate over the Denver Test, there is now a determination by all parties to improve the process for sanctioning Tests.

The RLIF will also develop an upgraded version of the international calendar, including New Zealand's tour of England at the end of this season, next year's Great Britain tour to Australia, an inaugural Nines World Cup in 2019, a Kangaroos tour in 2020 and the 2021 World Cup in England.  

While the Denver Test was first mooted last June, NRL clubs were not directly consulted about it until recently and no allowance for players returning from the United States was made in the NRL draw, which was released last October.

In fact, the scheduling couldn't have been much worse, with England duo Gareth Widdop and James Graham due to arrive home just two days before St George Illawarra's Thursday night match against Parramatta because of the international time difference and the Warriors and Storm, who will provide the bulk of the Kiwis squad, both having Friday night games.

Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop.
Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

The NRL's decision to make the weekend of Origin II on June 24 a stand-alone representative round, which will feature a Women's State of Origin and the Pacific Test double-header headlined by Samoa and Tonga, inspired the RLIF to declare an international window.

The RFL has not scheduled any Super League matches that weekend but besides England versus New Zealand in Denver, the only other international fixture announced is between PNG and Lebanon at Campbelltown Stadium.

NRL clubs say the purpose of the stand-alone representative weekend was to give those players not involved in Origin a mid-year break and would prefer the England-New Zealand Test to be in Auckland or at the end of the season if it is going to be played in Denver. 

The RLPA and their general manager Clint Newton, a former USA international, have been the driving force in ensuring medical, insurance and recovery provisions were in place for New Zealand and England players involved.

With English and Kiwis players wanting to represent their countries in the historic Test on US soil, NRL clubs have little choice other than to release them but it is widely agreed that communication and the process for sanctioning Tests needs to be improved.

The RLIF gave a commitment to do so at last week's NRL CEOs meeting on the Gold Coast, which was attended by the international body's chairman John Grant and involved representatives of the NZRL, RFL and RLPA.

The appointment of Grant, who was ARLC chairman for six years until recently, and Nigel Wood's move from CEO of England's RFL to RLIF chief executive give the organisation a greater understanding of the issues facing NRL and Super League clubs over international scheduling.

The RLIF is also in the process of appointing a Southern Hemisphere General Manager and a GM of Operations, who would be based in the northern hemisphere.

This is significant as the RLIF's first and only full-time employee until now has been outgoing CEO David Collier, who was appointed in 2015 and did not have a background in the sport.

Much of the communication and negotiation between countries, clubs and players had been done by Andrew Hill, who was RLIF company secretary, but with his departure to run the 2017 World Cup before becoming Canterbury CEO there has been a void.

Most in the game only became aware of the likelihood of the Denver Test proceeding after a meeting in Brisbane ahead of the December 2 World Cup final between the RLIF, NZRL, RFL, NRL and RLPA, and the Test wasn't officially sanctioned by the RLIF board until late February.

Under the current sanctioning process, nations apply to the RLIF for formal approval to play a Test match but the NZRL was only required to supply details about the logistics of the game and how it would benefit international rugby league.

There were 114 internationals sanctioned by the RLIF last year before the World Cup and player welfare is an issue that is left to individual nations.

NRL clubs believe that the appointment of an observer to RLIF board meetings would ensure they are better informed about issues that affect them and their players, and enable direct discussions with member countries.

While the NRL clubs would never have voting rights, a review of the RLIF constitution is set to allow a representative to sit in on board meetings and clubs discussed appointing an observer at last week's meeting on the Gold Coast.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of or the NRL.

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