A sport that clings desperately to its twin embattled heartlands, on Australia’s eastern seaboard and in the north of England, it is two weeks into its latest World Cup, a concept which in itself draws sneers from the few who pay it any heed at all in these here parts.
There are 14 teams competing in the 2013 global gathering but the majority can do so only because of the same sort of grandparent rule which prompted Jack Charlton’s Ireland to be labelled condescendingly as ‘Plastic Paddies’ by the British press.
Italy, the tournament’s surprise package, are almost exclusively sourced from Down Under, while the Ireland team which faces the star-studded Kangaroos in Thomond Park tonight, is littered with English accents and a few Aussie ones, too.
Among them is James Hasson, a 21-year-old Liverpool fan who was born in England, grew up in Sydney and now plays his club ‘footy’ for the Manly Sea Eagles, just one of nine of the NRL’s 16 clubs crammed in to the New South Wales city.
Hasson may be representing Ireland but the claustrophobic nature of the rugby league scene was embodied perfectly earlier this week by Josh Morris who plays for Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in Sydney and lines up alongside his twin brother Brett for Australia tonight.
“James Hasson lives in the same place as me so we know each other pretty well,” Morris explained. “He says he’s out to get me and Paul Gallen because he lives in the same spot as us. He used to work in Subway and he made mine and Paul’s sandwiches.”
Put like that, there is little doubt that rugby league is punching far beyond its weight in even considering a World Cup let alone pulling one off, but then this is a sport that attracts an inordinate slice of the pie back in Oz too.
There are less than 12 million people living in the states of Queensland and New South Wales where the game is grasped closest to the bosom of a country infatuated with sports and yet the rest of the figures attached to it are off the charts.
Last year, the NRL agreed a five-year TV deal with the Nine and Fox Sports networks for over AUS$1bn (€700m). The game’s top stars are earning in excess of AUS$1m (€700,000) a year and they play in games that attract an average of 15,000 punters a go.
League has its detractors, not just for the perceived smash-bang-wallop of some of its games, yet punters in Limerick will see the game honed to perfection this evening.
Heavy defeats to Fiji and England have already put paid to Ireland’s hopes of progressing beyond the group stage and the expectation is that they will once again spend considerably more time than they would like standing under their own posts.
The result may not be in doubt but the opportunity to witness first-hand some of the game’s best exponents should make up somewhat for the lack of suspense and the Irish, though outgunned at this tournament, could play their part in that too.