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Five nations to 55: Baitieri's role in league's international growth

Creating an eight-year calendar of Test matches, tours and tournaments was little more than a pipe-dream when Tas Baitieri attended the inaugural meeting of the Rugby League International Board in 1985, as only five nations played the game.

Therefore, it was fitting for Baitieri to receive life membership of the RLIF – along with New Zealand's John Bishop – at the same conference in England where officials agreed on a rolling calendar of events from 2019, including an Oceania Cup, the return of Kangaroo tours and a Nines World Cup.

While some details still need to be confirmed after Wednesday's meeting of NRL club CEOs and discussions with the RLPA, the new era for the international game is set to include:

  • A two-tier Oceania Cup in 2019, 2020 and 2022, in which Australia will play New Zealand and Tonga at the end of next season;
  • A Nines World Cup for men's and women's teams every four years from 2019, with the inaugural tournament tipped for the new Western Sydney Stadium;
  • A Lions tour of the Southern Hemisphere (excluding Australia) at the end of next season;
  • The first Kangaroos tour to Europe since 2003 to be held in 2020;
  • A 16-nation World Cup in England in 2021 to feature four equal pools, with the top two teams from each pool advancing to the quarter-finals; and,
  • An eight-nation 2021 Women's World Cup, featuring Australia, New Zealand, England, a European team and two each from Asia-Pacific and North America/South America/Middle East.

With Wales becoming the 10th country to qualify for the 2021 World Cup after defeating Ireland on Sunday, details about the draw and format for the tournaments, which include an eight-nation Wheelchair World Cup, are expected to be announced in coming days.

However, without Baitieri's selfless commitment it is unlikely the number of league-playing nations would have increased from five to 55 in the 33 years since the former Penrith and Canterbury forward moved to France after playing each off-season there from 1981.

Baitieri, who is the NRL's international development manager, has been heavily involved in establishing league in Russia, the Middle East, South-East Asia and just about everywhere else the game is now played, including Melbourne, where he worked as a development officer in 1993 after returning from France.

"The game has come a long way since 1985," Baitieri said. "Back then only five countries played the game and it wasn't full-time professionalism like we have today.

"There wasn't a need for a calendar because with only five countries playing it was pretty straightforward. There were Kangaroo tours, British Lions tours, the French toured, the Kiwis toured and that was pretty much it."

Tas Baitieri (second from left) ahead of the Emerging Nations World Championship.
Tas Baitieri (second from left) ahead of the Emerging Nations World Championship. ©NRL Photos

Having become a fluent French speaker during his off-season playing stints in France, Baitieri was recruited as an interpreter for the inaugural RLIB meeting in Paris on May 7 and 8, 1985, which was hosted by Federation Francaise de Rugby XIII (FFR) chairman Jacques Sopplesa.

"With Jacques's unwillingness to speak English at the roundtable, a solution was getting me to attend the board meeting and be the interpreter," Baitieri recalled.

"The [International] Board bosses back then were Ron McGregor (NZ), Ben Sabumei (PNG), Ken Arthurson (Australia), David Oxley (England) and Jacques Soppelsa (France). Maurice Oldroyd (BARLA) was present, as was Mike Mayer as an observer from the United States. Bill Fallowfield was the [RLIB] secretary at the time."

The game has come a long way since 1985.

Tas Baiteri

A year earlier Baitieri had featured on the cover of Rugby League Week after travelling to Moscow to lobby for Russia to enter a team at the University World Games.

In 1998, the Youth Olympics were staged in Russia and featured an eight-nation league tournament comprising under 16s teams.

"It was -40 degrees when I went there in February 1984 and I thought 'How could you ever play footy at that temperature?' But they play in summer," he said.

Included in the RLIF press release on the new international calendar was the announcement of annual funding for the Americas Championship, involving the United States, Canada, Jamaica and Chile, and a new MEA Championship for nations in the Middle East and Africa.

"What lies ahead is exciting as we branch into new markets with an appetite for the game," Baitieri said. "We are sprinkled in a lot of areas now and it is just going to take time." 

Tas Baitieri: International Pioneer

  • 1981-84: Off-season stints for Paris club Chatillon
  • 1984-86: France coach and full-time employment with FFR
  • 1985: Attended inaugural RLIB meeting (predecessor to RLIF)
  • 1989:  Arranged first Dutch Amateur RL tournament
  •  1990: French mid-season tour of Australia
  • 1993:  ARL as Development Officer in Melbourne
  • 1994: Returned to France on secondment from RLIB for two years preparing a SWAT analysis of the game. World 7s in Sydney.
  • 1995: Employed by Paris Saint Germain in European Super League. World 9s in Fiji.
  • 1996: NSWRL Coaching Manager
  • 1998: World Youth Games in Russia. Mediterranean Cup in France
  • 1999: Tournament Manager for England, New Zealand, Australia tri-series
  • 2000: World Cup and Emerging Nations World Championships in UK
  • 2002: France to Lebanon and start of the game's foot print in the Middle East
  • 2003: World 9s in Sydney and inauguration of Rugby League European Federation in Paris
  • 2004: World 9s, French Wheelchair team to Australia, Australian Police team to Morocco
  • 2005: First Prime Minister's 13 in PNG. Australian Police team to Argentina
  • 2008: Centenary World Cup and Festival of World Cups in Australia
  • 2010: Four Nations involving Australia, England, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand
  • 2011: Four Nations involving England, Wales, New Zealand and Australia. Inauguration of Asia Pacific Rugby League Confederation in Auckland
  • 2015: Pacific Games in PNG, Pacific Test
  • 2016: Pacific Test
  • 2018: Commonwealth Championships, Emerging Nations World Championships 
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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