GAME ON: The NRL needs to look to the big picture

HIGHER PURPOSE: Wigan players visiting Nan Tien Temple. Their match with Hull in Wollongong on Saturday highlights the need for the NRL to think bigger in its approach to the global game. Picture: Sylvia Liber.
HIGHER PURPOSE: Wigan players visiting Nan Tien Temple. Their match with Hull in Wollongong on Saturday highlights the need for the NRL to think bigger in its approach to the global game. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

THIS week, Game On sat down with Wigan owner Ian Lenagan over a beer at Pepe’s. It was an eye-opening experience.

For one, he kind of spoke a little funny. It wasn’t the accent. He used strange words like, “innovation”, “future thinking” and “global presence” and other foreign terms.

He talked about far off lands like Canada and the USA like they were somehow within the game’s reach. He even sees Perth – ya know, that place all the way out there in the Indian Ocean – as a global city worthy of a rugby league team.

For someone who’s spent some time in this rugby league media caper, it just wasn’t what we were used to. OK, sarcasm aside, it was enlightening.

You simply can’t draw direct parallels between Super League and the NRL. They’re entirely different beasts. What the Wigan tour does highlight is how consumed with insular thinking the NRL is. That thinking is the product of complacency.

For whatever the NRL gets wrong, however it tries to tear itself apart from the inside, there’s always a television rights deal, or State of Origin to bail it out.

The Super League has neither cash cow. In the shadow of the English Premier League and club rugby, it relies on forward thinking. 

We have to work harder. We don’t have a State of Origin as charismatic, and dynamic and cash cow as it is.

Ian Lenagan

“We have to work harder,” Lenagan said. “We don’t have a State of Origin as charismatic, and dynamic and cash cow as it is. It’s great, I admire the NRL immensely for it, I just wish they’d join us on the international club game front.”

The other obvious difference is the way players and coaches of Wigan and Hull have embraced the move to play a competition game on the other side of the world.

NRL coaches will throw their hands in the air over a trip to the UK a month or more before the start of the season. Wigan will play Warrington just four days after returning to the UK. 

Self-interest aside, can anyone truly claim an NRL season-opener in New York, or Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Hawaii… for God’s sake Papua New Guinea, wouldn’t be good for the game. 

If the Corrimal Cougars women’s side can self-fund a rugby league trip to Canada, as they did last year, why can’t the NRL even get close?

The prospect of a Super League team out of Perth may sound like a pipe dream, but it looks closer to fruition than an NRL side in the west – as absurd as that sounds. 

Lenagan’s gripe may sound simply like an outsider lobbing grenades from the boondocks, but it’s a fact, the NRL will eventually get lapped if it doesn’t look to the bigger picture. 

Last year the NBL took their game global. The Sydney Kings, Melbourne United and Brisbane Bullets traveled to the US on the eve of their season to play NBA sides the Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz.

It caused a complete rejig of the NBL draw and saw Sydney rush home and straight into their season-opener. The comments of Kings captain Kevin Lisch resonated at the time.

“I’ve been telling people I don’t care if we arrive five minutes before our first game,” Lisch said at the time.

“This is about the bigger picture. The preparation for the first game is really irrelevant for myself it’s more about growing basketball in this country.”

He's a naturalised Aussie but I guess, like Lenagan, Lisch still talks a little funny.

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