Published in Rugby League World in 2009
A year ago, amid much debate, Rugby League World presented its world rankings of the 33 Rugby League-playing nations. For the record, Australia were top and American Samoa last.
In great news for the sport, there has been activity in no fewer than 41 countries in 2009. We have based the rankings on the strength of the game in each nation, not merely on the performance of the international team. Preference, therefore, tends to go to those nations with domestic competitions and, happily, more and more local leagues are popping up.
The undisputed number-one Rugby League-playing nation. The Kangaroos won the Four Nations final by 30 points, they beat the Kiwis with ease in the mid-year Test match and the NRL remains comfortably ahead of Super League in playing standards. Their backline is regarded by many expects as the best ever with world-class talents like Golden Boot winner, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston unstoppable at times.
England made up for their disastrous World Cup in 2008 by beating New Zealand in the inaugural Four Nations and, as a result, climb up to second in the rankings. Sam Tomkins, Kyle Eastmond and Richie Myler all emerged looking every inch future stars while, up front, England’s forwards were superb against the Aussies and Kiwis. Domestically, Super League maintained its high standards, but unquestionably lags behind the NRL.
3 NEW ZEALAND
The Kiwis couldn’t reach the giddy heights of 12 months earlier, not even managing to make the Four Nations final. The loss of Australian coaching guru Wayne Bennett from their staff impacted negatively as they were easily second best to England at Huddersfield. In the NRL, the Warriors had a poor season, finishing third bottom, having got to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final in 2009.
The outstanding performances of Catalans Dragons in Super League meant that France were ranked fourth last year despite their poor World Cup performances. The Dragons were less consistent in 2009 but came so close to making the Grand Final. Happily for the French, however, Bobbie Goulding instilled pride back into their international jersey in what will be regarded as a very good year for the Tricolores.
5 PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Buoyed by their World Cup performances, the Kumuls enjoyed a superb year winning the Pacific Cup as they beat Cook Islands in a thrilling final to qualify for the 2010 Four Nations. They also beat World Cup semi-finalists Fiji 2-0 in a Test series earlier in the year and put up a credible showing against the Australian Prime Ministers XIII in their annual fixture in October. The game grows ever stronger in this League-mad nation.
6 COOK ISLANDS
The Cooks were magnificent in the Pacific Cup – firstly they had to overcome strong favourites Samoa in a qualifier and they went on to stun World Cup semi-finalists Fiji with another two-point victory. They also played two matches against Australian Affiliated States, winning one, and beat Australian Fiji. They are coached by David Fairleigh, the former St Helens and Australia prop, and have League legend Kevin Iro working behind the scenes. Qualification for the 2013 World Cup is very much on the cards.
Not quite as good in 2009 as they were in 2008, Fiji slip a place in the rankings. The defection of superstar Jarryd Hayne to Australia partly explained their failure to reach the Pacific Cup Final and their mid-season Test series defeat to Papua New Guinea. However, they beat the touring BARLA Great Britain side twice. League has received a tremendous shot in the arm on the island in the last two years and they have much to look forward to.
Internationally, 2009 was a superb year for the Welsh as Iestyn Harris led them to victory in the European Cup and to a much more respectable scoreline against England. They appear to have coped with player defections to England much better than Scotland and, in particular, Ireland. Unfortunately, at domestic level, 2009 will be remembered with little fondness in the valleys as the beleaguered Crusaders endured a nightmare move before eventually deserting the rugby heartlands of the south to play in Wrexham. The birth of South Wales Scorpions was the one bright spot.
The Tongans weren’t at their best in the Pacific Cup, taking a 30-point beating off the hosts, Papua New Guinea, before losing the third-place play-off to Fiji. But they did put up a decent showing in Rotorua against the Kiwis and the growing number of Tongans playing in the NRL and the Super League helps maintain their status as a leading Rugby League nation. At second-tier level, they lost 18-30 to the BARLA tourists.
Scotland fared reasonably well without their talisman and captain, Danny Brough, who broke the news to this magazine a year ago that he had quit Scotland to try his luck with England. The Scots reached the European Cup Final by hammering Italy 104-0 and beating Lebanon 22-10 in arm-wrestle of a match televised by Sky. They eventually lost the final 28-16 to hosts Wales with their team made up of nearly all players from the two Championship divisions in England. The game in the capital city, Edinburgh, received a boost with Super League’s Magic Weekend taking place there in May.
The Samoans endured another disappointing year following on from their underachievements at the World Cup. Their failure to qualify for the Pacific Cup, losing an elimination match to Cook Islands, was a shock even though the Cooks went on to light up the tournament. But with so much talent at their disposal, it won’t be a surprise if they get things right soon and they will have been encouraged with wins by Samoa Patriots and Toa Samoa over the touring BARLA Great Britain team.
The Lebanese pushed Scotland close in the European Cup, going down by only 12 points in the match that decided Wales’s opponent in the final. After that, they hammered Ireland to take third place in the competition. Domestically their newly expanded seven-team competition continues to thrive on and off the pitch while they have an abundant of talent in Australia to call upon who will help them mount a bid to qualify for the next World Cup. Their most famous player, Hazem El-Masri, retired from the sport in 2009.
The Irish performances against Wales and Lebanon in the recent European Cup were a big disappointment on the face of it but the loss of players like Ben Harrison and Chris Bridge to England bit hard. They could struggle to qualify for a 12-team World Cup in 2013 and will be hoping the RLIF extend the competition to 16 teams. Domestically, their competition is growing with the game now emerging in Belfast too.
Their domestic competition continues to consolidate with New York Knights winning a thrilling final against the previously unbackable Jacksonville Axemen. The game in Jacksonville has flourished immensely under the guidance of Daryl ‘Spinner’ Howland with the Axemen’s home crowds in excess of four figures while it appears the game is on the verge of kicking off in Hawaii. Their international team – made up entirely of homegrown players – beat Jamaica in a thrilling Test match in November.
The Jamaicans have enjoyed remarkable progress in 2009, playing a full international against the United States and sending a team to Leeds to play in the Headingley Nines, which was eventually won by Hull FC. They also have a domestic league. An impressive sponsorship deal with Virgin Atlantic has helped enormously and they will have an eye on World Cup qualification give they can call upon Super League talent like Chev Walker, Leon Pryce and Ryan Bailey. Walker would have played against America had he not broken his leg in the Super League play-offs.
2009 was an eventful year for Italy as they beat Czech Republic and Germany to win the European Shield under the coaching of the former Salford player Carlo Napolitano. The withdrawal of Russia then saw them handed a place in the European Cup where they beat Serbia to claim fifth place. An Italian XIII of Australian origin, meanwhile, reached the final of the Mediterranean Cup in Australia. The presence of the domestic competition in Italy since the 1960s is great news for the game.
The Serbians felt wronged as they lost to Italy in the fifth-place European Cup play-off, claiming their opponents used a number of players from outside their original squad. Coached by Whitehaven’s Ged Stokes, they suffered 80-point beatings at the hands of Ireland and Wales but they have a strong domestic scene, headed by a national championship, a student league and an Origin competition to underpin their fortunes. Forward Soni Radovanovic featured for Haven, playing three times in 2009 for the Championship club.
Led by former Catalans Dragons Wembley tryscorer, Younes Khattabi, the Moroccans enjoyed a superb year in 2009, proving they are formidable opposition by beating Italy in June before winning the Euro-Med Challenge by putting Catalonia and Belgium to the sword later in the summer. With their players predominantly coming from the French Élite competition, they have plenty of experience and quality in their side.
Their withdrawal from the European Cup – apparently due to a lack of funds – was an enormous disappointment for League followers but with a new administration now running the game in Russia, there is hope for brighter skies ahead. Encouragingly, it is believed that emphasis will be placed on youth, starting with 10-year olds. Twelve teams took part in the domestic competition, split into three groups of four with Lokomotiv Moscow again emerging triumphant.
20 CZECH REPUBLIC
The Czechs will remember 2009 with fondness as their Rugby League team beat Germany in the European Shield. An inaugural Origin match took place in May before the domestic tournament began late in the year with Olomouc beating Pardubice Jets in the first game. The competition clashes with the rugby union season which means all players from the four participating teams are out-and-out Rugby League players, which is a great sign for their future.
21 SOUTH AFRICA
The days when they qualified for World Cups seem long ago but there is still an abundance of League activity in South Africa with one of the largest domestic competition among the emerging nations. They entertained the British Army twice in June and also the Australia University team. In a significant coup for the game in South Africa, Brisbane Broncos will conduct coaching and refereeing seminars in the country in January.
22 UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
UAE are another who enjoyed a memorable 2009 with former Leeds and St Helens forward Wayne McDonald heavily involved on and off the pitch. They played two matches against Liban Espoir (players from the Lebanese domestic league) in Dubai in July. They were winning the first 16-6 before a mass brawl saw the game abandoned during the second half and, later in the month, they won the second game 34-10. They also lost a friendly against leading BARLA club Saddleworth Rangers.
Germany competed strongly in the European Shield and made impressive strides on a domestic basis with an increased number of teams playing the game and an annual Origin match in place. It is hoped that the game will be expanded to four states next year – Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg, Hessen and Nord Rhein Westfalen with an emphasis on both youth and open-age.
After winning the 2008 Student World Cup, Greece lifted more silverware last year by beating Italy 34-14 in the final of the Mediterranean Cup in Italy, having beaten Portugal 42-16 in the semi-final a week earlier. They are able to call upon Michael Korkidas, John Skandalis not to mention Whitehaven’s former Penrith junior Jamie Theoharous and they are coached by former Warrington and Carlisle player Steve Georgallis. But it is no coincidence that there success has been confined to Australian shores as there is little Rugby League activity to report in Greece.
The Ukranians lifted silverware in 2009 by emerging victorious in the European Bowl in the most impressive fashion, racking up 126 points and only conceding six in their two games against Estonia and Latvia. These remain the only internationals Ukraine have ever played! They also lost 38-20 to the BARLA Under-23s. Perhaps even more significantly, the game now has a domestic footing in the country with four teams kicking off a league which saw Legion XIII crowned champions.
There was no Rugby League activity in Malta in 2008 so the progress they made last year can only be described as outstanding. Roderick Attard becomes the first Maltese player to play the game professionally, signing with Gateshead Thunder, while a domestic championship kicked off in late November. The Maltese also hosted English amateurs Bamber Bridge while in Australia, Malta came third in the Mediterranean Cup.
Latvia let slip the European Bowl which they won in 2008 losing out to newcomers Ukraine. They thrashed Estonia 74-4 but lost 40-6 to Ukraine in the three-team competition, falling three places in the rankings as a result. Formed in 2007, they should be delighted with their progress over the last two years.
Belgium competed in 2009′s Euro Med Challenge, winning one and losing one of their two matches. In July they beat Catalonia 28-22 in Wavre, before going down 46-12 to a strong Moroccan outfit – but given the experience in their opponent’s side, it was an encouraging display. 2009 saw the first-ever game of Rugby League played in Belgium when the London-based side, Hammersmith Hill Hoists, beat Brabant Wallon Wavre Rugby XIII, 40-24. Belgium will host Denmark in 2010.
Rugby League in Catalonia enjoyed a successful year with Barcelona hosting a well-attended Super League match between Catalans Dragons and Warrington and a Catalonia side playing three games. First up, they thrashed the Czech Republic 52-10 before they came last of three teams in the Euro-Med Challenge. They lost 29-6 to Morocco and 28-22 to newcomers Belgium in two keenly contested games. Domestically, the game is thriving with teams in Barcelona and Girona among others.
Portugal sadly saw an incoming tour by the Australian-based Portuguese postponed due to financial reasons. But Portugal entered the Mediterranean Cup in Australia, coming last out of the four teams. They were beaten 42-16 by eventual winners, Greece, on the first weekend before losing 62-6 to Malta in the third-place play-off game. Cronulla hooker Isaac de Gois qualifies to play for the side.
Japan entered the annual Cabramatta Nines in Australia, picking up a point as they drew 4-4 with Appin. Domestically, Tokyo XIII Warriors played a number of challenge matches, beating and drawing with Tokyo Barbarians before beating the Japan ANZACs by two games to one. The games were generally high-scoring affairs. Looking ahead, the Japanese are hoping to cement the game in Kansai in 2010 as well as touring Australia.
The Estonians were once again the whipping boys in the European Bowl, which was eventually won by Ukraine, who beat them 86-0. They also went down 74-4 to Latvia to round off a painful couple of weeks.
Newcomers Norway hosted the inaugural Scandanavian Nines earlier this year in Oslo and three of their local rugby union sides entered. Norway went on to play Great Britain Pioneers and Denmark, winning the latter game 28-26 in a thrilling international. They also thrashed a Barbarians side – made up of players from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK – 76-16 in a 16-try romp. Lillestrom Lions RLK were formed.
34 THE NETHERLANDS
With a new administration headed up by Jason Bruygoms, the Netherlands were welcomed back into the Rugby League fold last year, having previously fallen out with the RLEF. Coached by former Workington scrum-half, Craig Fisher, they hosted Oxford University and played two Origin matches with Country beating City twice including a 78-22 in the second game.
With former Leeds and England winger Ikram Butt at the fore, a British Pakistan side was set up in 2009. Captained by Junaid Malik, they lost 46-0 to the Great Britain Community Lions Under-18s before going down 26-22 in a nailbiter against North Counties Police at Rochdale in August.
The Danes entered a joint side with Sweden in the first-ever Scandanavian Nines in 2009 and went on to play a Test against Norway later in the year, going down by only two points, 28-26, after training sessions were held in Copenhagen. They will be touring Belgium in 2010 and are actively looking for players, currently playing outside Denmark who are eligible.
37 SAUDI ARABIA
Three schools from Jeddah travelled to the Qatari capital, Doha, earlier this year to play in a two-day nine-a-side tournament and, following that, they played in two months of tournaments at Under-12, Under-14 and Under-16 level. Jeddah Prep & Grammar and British International School contested all three finals. Eighty percent of the players were from Arab countries. An Under-16 team toured Lebanon later in the year.
Doha, the capital of Qatar, played host to a seven-team nine-a-side schools’ tournament which was eventually won by the hosts, Al Khor International School. Further youth development is still on the cards.
After a period of inactivity throughout 2008, Niue played in the Cabramatta Nines last year and were good enough to beat New South Wales Universities 6-0. But that was their only win as they went down 24-6 to the eventual winners, the National Indigenous Invitational side, and 40-4 to Tonga.
Another newcomer to the Rugby League party in 2009, having entered a joint side with Denmark, Sweden were so impressed with the Scandanavian Nines that was held in Norway that they have agreed to host the event in 2010 in Gothenburg. They hope that they will be in a strong enough position to enter at least three sides of their own in the competition. They are currently looking for sponsors as they seek to build themselves up.
41 SOLOMAN ISLANDS
While they haven’t actually played a game, there was significant activity in the Solomon Islands in 2009. The International Federation’s Tas Baitieri visited late in the year as plans were announced for a four-team local competition and a friendly against New South Wales Police in 2010.