WIGAN owner Ian Lenagan has fired a salvo at the NRL, accusing it of shirking its responsibility to grow the game globally as the Warriors prepare to host Hull FC in Saturday’s ground-breaking Super League fixture in Wollongong.
The clash between the two British heavyweights will be the first regular season Super League clash held outside Europe, with the visiting clubs to take on St George Illawarra and South Sydney in a double-header at ANZ Stadium a week later.
NRL premiers’ have regularly made trips to the UK for pre-season World Club Challenge fixtures, while Brisbane and the Dragons have been part of expanded World Club Series’ in recent seasons.
However, while possible clashes in Asia and the USA have previously been mooted, the NRL is yet to take any regular season fixtures abroad.
With his side poised to make history at WIN Stadium, Lenagan says the NRL is blowing the chance to grow its brand, and that of its clubs, on the world stage.
“I think [the NRL] is more than slightly dropping the ball,” Lenagan said in an exclusive chat with The Illawarra Mercury this week.
“Why on earth aren’t the NRL clubs’ recognising that their franchise would be worth 10s of millions [of dollars] if they would actually treat international club rugby league the right way.
“For the last 10 years it has been the best competition in the world and, because it’s the lead competition in the world, it needs to stop being so insular.
“I understand politics is a huge factor within the NRL, but they have a classic opportunity that they’re neglecting.”
Australia and New Zealand recently hosted a successful World Cup – spurred largely by Tonga’s fairy tale charge to the semi-finals – but Lenagan believes the game can have a bigger global presence by taking club fixtures to the world.
“I believe that club rugby league, rather than international [Test] rugby league is the future of the game,” he said.
“We’ll never compete with rugby union when it comes to the international game, but club rugby union is poorly supported everywhere.
“I’m heavily involved in football in the UK and the [English] Premier League, and [chairman] Richard Scudamore, have been trying for years to get two of their clubs to play what they call the 49th game out of the UK because they realise what the value of that could be.
“I take particular delight in the fact that it’s Wigan and Super League, that have actually made that happen.
“Now that it’s actually come to fruition, there are a lot of people back in England saying it’s great flying the flag, not just in Australia, but internationally where it counts.
“Who knows, we could in the future be playing in New York or somewhere else and I just wish the NRL would pick it up with the same degree of innovation the Super League does.”
The Toronto Wolfpack became the game’s first trans-Atlantic team in claiming the League One title in 2017, and will be chasing promotion to the Super League when it competes in the Championship this season.
It’s a push Lenegan believes will see the Super League become a fully international competition within five years, one that could even feature an Australian franchise should the NRL continue to sit on its’ hands on expansion.
“Super League will be an international competition in five years’ time,” Lenagan said.
“I believe at that time, as well as the English clubs, we’ll have Toulouse, we’ll have Perpignan, we’ll have Toronto, we’ll probably have New York within that time scale.
“The Super League is doing a lot of innovative things to take the game forward. The 12 clubs are working tremendously well together, that’s how we got permission to do this [Wollongong game].
“Who knows, if the NRL don’t do something about [expansion with] Perth, with a single flight back to England it wouldn’t at all surprise me if they became interested in playing in a competition of that scale.”
While cross-hemisphere exhibition games have been commonplace, Wigan and Hull will battle it out for competition points. Lenegan said it’s a crucial factor.
“I think real games for points are far more significant than friendly games,” he said.
“We noticed the way some of the Australian teams come to England to play in the second or third place World Club Challenge and don’t regard them as seriously as we would like to, or as we would if they were friendly games.
“Playing for two points really brings it home. I’m already much impressed by the local fervour there is in Wollongong for the game on Saturday.
“Wigan and Hull, play a style of open rugby that’s tremendous to see and I’d love to see as many people as possible come out and watch us play.”