Pacific nations are set to play in a regular end-of-season tournament, possibly including Australia and New Zealand, while they may also host Tests against Great Britain during the 2019 Lions tour.
The RLIF recently appointed Jeremy Edwards, the 2017 World Cup tournament director, to the newly-created role of southern hemisphere general manager. One of his main tasks is to develop a Pacific Championship to provide regular games for Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
It is undecided whether Australia and New Zealand would participate, but the Pacific nations are keen to play the Kangaroos and Kiwis after their success at the World Cup.
“Jeremy’s role is the deliver a plan for Asia-Pacific and the core element of that plan has got to be a Pacific Championship,” RLIF chairman John Grant said.
“If you want meaningful international football you have got to play more games and a Pacific Championship that leverages off the World Cup is what we really need to do. That is going to be one of Jeremy’s major responsibilities.”
The RLIF has appointed Edwards and global operations manager Danny Kazandijan to newly created positions for an organisation, which until the appointment of David Collier in 2015, didn’t have a fulltime CEO. Former RLF chief executive Nigel Wood has now replaced Collier.
In a wide-ranging interview with NRL.com ahead of the game’s inaugural stand-alone representative weekend, featuring the Pacific Test double-header, State of Origin and the Denver Test, Grant outlined the RLIF’s ambitions, including:
Among the key events on the international calendar will be the re-introduction of Lions tours, with Great Britain planning to travel to the southern hemisphere in 2019 to play Australia and New Zealand.
The Lions, who will be coached by Wayne Bennett, are also likely to play Papua New Guinea and either Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.
“They want to play Test matches and there is a strong commercial case to go PNG, there is a commercial opportunity to go to New Zealand and they think they have a moral obligation to go to Samoa, Tonga or Fiji – one of them,” Grant said.
Developing a five-year calendar would enable the game to commercialise international fixtures and prevent the scheduling issues which sparked fierce debate over the Test between New Zealand and England at Mile High Stadium on Saturday (Sunday, 6am AEST).
Grant said it was in the interests of players, clubs and the NRL to grow the game internationally, with broadcast rights outside Australia and New Zealand for the Telstra Premiership and Holden State of Origin increasing from $8 million for the past five years to $25 million from 2018 to 2022.
With speculation that broadcasters may not be prepared to pay as much for sports rights in the future, Grant said there was an opportunity for the game to offset any reduction by increasing revenue from other areas.
“If I am sitting back in club land, my biggest concern now is my revenue from 2022 and sustainability of it long term,” Grant said.
“In the next five years they have got to figure out how they will drive their revenues in 2022 if they don’t get the same level of grant from the centre [NRL] out of broadcast. You have got to play in a bigger market, it is the only choice you’ve got.
“If I was a big club like Melbourne Storm, South Sydney or St George Illawarra, I would want to be a global brand. I would want to be like Manchester United and I would want to have fans around the world.
“The only way you can do that is to make international rugby league stronger, with more games being played. That’s why you play in Denver.”
The main complaints about the Denver Test were over player welfare but the NZRL and RFL have put into place a range of measures to help alleviate concerns and Grant said the RLIF was looking to implement standards for all nations.
To do so, Grant believes the RLIF should be involved in a CBA for international football, which would also address the issue of more equitable Test match payments for players.
“England and New Zealand have done a great job in terms of getting their player welfare regime in place so that has been a really good exercise. But if that were pulled back as part of the CBA with the RLIF for international rugby league you’d get standards right across the board,” Grant said.
“The other thing you have to do is take out this bias around payment structures, where the Australian players get $20,000 per game and the Fiji and Tonga players are getting $300.
“The Australian players are quite disposed to trying to even that out and I think where this needs to land is for there to be a CBA for international football with the RLIF.”