New International Rugby League chairman Greg Barclay believes the Nines concept could have a similar impact on the growth of the code as T20 cricket has for that sport.
Barclay, who was recently appointed – along with Troy Grant and Emma Young – as one of the IRL's first independent directors, is also the chairman of New Zealand Cricket and a member of the International Cricket Council board.
Grant is a former NSW deputy premier and National Party MP, while Young was Head of Telecommunications at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
After taking over as IRL chairman on February 1, Barclay outlined his vision for the international game in a wide-ranging interview with NRL.com in which he discussed:
- Taking advantage of rugby union's woes in Australia;
- Ensuring the rise of the Pacific nations continues;
- Adopting a targeted strategy to improve the game in other nations, including France;
- Develop up to 12 nations capable of winning the World Cup;
- Opportunities for the game in North America, particularly Canada and California;
- Building an international calendar with more events like the Oceania Cup, and;
- The potential of the Nines format to help grow the game.
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"Nines is exciting," Barclay said from Perth, where the IRL board was meeting ahead of the NRL Nines. "If you look at league in terms of alternate offerings I think Nines is hugely attractive, and it is a little bit different. It is a product that almost stands alone."
The IRL staged the inaugural World Cup Nines at Bankwest Stadium last October, while the NRL Nines have been moved from Auckland to Perth after a two-year hiatus and a World Nines Confederation Cup, featuring China, was launched in Samoa this week.
Barclay believes the financial viability of Nines tournaments and interest from fans and broadcasters will increase over time, as they have done with T20 and one-day cricket.
"I think it is a really exciting concept and I think people would probably point to the fact that some of these Nines competitions are perhaps not making the money that was anticipated or driving the crowds but I think it is something you have got to invest in and it will take time to pick up and get momentum," he said.
"T20 cricket was exactly the same. It wasn't an overnight success, it has taken time to build it up. If you think what it was like pre-Big Bash and look at what it is like now with Big Bash, IPL and ICC World Cups it is a huge phenomenon so I think Nines is a really exciting prospect.
"I was a kid when the one-day stuff came along in cricket and suddenly that took off as a complimentary offering to Test cricket, not a substitute for it. In the last 10 years, but more so during the last five years, you have had T20, which has just been a great phenomenon."
Through the Indian diaspora around the world, cricket has gained a foothold in many new markets and Barclay predicts that the sport will make a significant impact in North America within the next decade.
He believes similar opportunities exist for rugby league if the code adopts a targeted approach.
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"While I would never advocate that you take the US on, there are probably pockets that you would look at," Barclay said. "I would suggest California as an obvious area that you might be able to get some traction, particularly if you look at the Pacifika communities that live there.
"If you ticked that off over the next five to 10 years in terms of your strategic planning, that would see league moving forward at a great pace."
The rise of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea in recent years has led to the IRL establishing the Oceania Cup and Cook Islands will join those nations and New Zealand in this year's tournament.
Barclay nominated Canada, France, the Celtic nations, Italy and South Africa, as well as parts of Asia and South America, as other key target areas for the game.
"I don't think that would be news to anyone but often when you have fresh eyes and some independence involved, and you start focusing on things from a strategic point of view, how much progress you can potentially make," Barclay said.
"It would be great to have 10-to-12 teams that are truly competitive and of those six-to-eight who could win a men's or women's World Cup.
"That is not a stretch when you think of what Tonga has done in a short period of time. Maybe France or one or two others could get to that point as well."
Even Australia had potential for growth, Barclay said.
"If you look at rugby's issues in Australia and the pain they are in at the moment you have got to see that as an opportunity for league," he said.
"Like all sports, you have got a female audience that is one half of the population which hasn't really been tapped into, and you have got a number of ethnic groups who aren't associated with the game either so I still think there is potential growth."