Australian about-turn has bitter after taste

The Kangaroos' cancellation of their first tour to Britain for seven years has crippling financial implications for rugby league
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The Independent Online

There was a black, bitter little joke doing the rounds in British rugby league circles yesterday. It took the form of a rhetorical question: "Does kangaroo steak taste of chicken?"

The game in this country is entitled to be bitter. The decision of the Australian Rugby League to pull the plug on its first full tour to this country for seven years, because of some imagined threat to their safety here or in transit, is a hugely damaging blow – one from which it will find it desperately difficult to recover.

International tours have been one of the main casualties of the years of turmoil following the birth of Super League and the importance of this one was both financial and talismanic.

The Rugby Football League, the already beleaguered governing body in this country, is crippled by accumulated debt. Although plans for this tour were deliberately scaled down to take the three Tests to modest venues at Bolton, Huddersfield and Wigan, the minimum of £2m it could have been expected to bring through the turnstiles would have helped enormously, even after paying overheads and splitting the residue with the Australians.

The RFL's development programmes throughout the British Isles, as well as support for initiatives beyond, depend on its financial viability. What has merely been difficult to fund of late might now prove impossible. The doomsday scenario is that the League could be rendered incapable of fulfilling basic functions, such as providing referees.

When the RFL's chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, says that he hopes the Australians realise the effect their decision will have, he says it through clenched teeth. The simple answer is that they – or enough of them to carry the day – clearly do not care very much and their obsession with their own domestic issues only consolidates rugby league's self-defeating image as a parochial game.

The RFL was due to announce a sponsor for the Test series next week – a blue-chip multinational it had to work fiendishly hard to bring on board in the current climate. The task of attracting any further backers to the game suddenly looks harder still; the first question they ask is how any recent projects have fared.

The clubs – St Helens, Leeds, Bradford and Wigan – who were due to play the tourists will also take a financial beating. Wigan's estimate of their total income from a 20,000-plus gate at the JJB Stadium plus the spin-offs is around £500,000 – more money lost to the game, which it cannot afford.

But the damage goes deeper than the balance-sheet. After the financial failure of last year's World Cup it was vital for rugby league to show that it could stage a major international event successfully.

Through no direct fault of its own, the game here will again be unable to do so. The feeling that this failure is due in large part to a lack of commitment at the Australian end of the bargain will only intensify if the Wallabies screw up their courage and get on the plane.

It is even more galling that it is players of the on-field courage and commitment of Brad Fittler, Darren Lockyer, Andrew Johns and Shane Webcke who were the prime movers in getting the tour called off. British fans will not feel quite the same in future about them and their playing achievements.

All the interested parties in this country were putting their heads together yesterday and again today to see whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. The insurance implications are still uncertain, with the cover against postponements possibly negated by the usual exclusion clause for acts of war.

If, in that case, they still have to pay for the venues, the feeling is that they might as well stage some sort of match, possibly "home internationals" featuring opposition like France and Ireland – who were quick to offer their services – or Great Britain against a side of British-based Australians and New Zealanders, or against a full Kiwi side, due to tour next year. The logistics of getting them here at short notice – even assuming that they, unlike their quaking cousins across the Tasman, were brave enough to come – would be genuinely frightening.

Other suggestions are that the full Test side could take over the Under-21s tour to South Africa or even that it could turn the tables on Australia by going there for a quick-hit, two-Test visit.

But there is a possible final indignity lurking behind that idea. Having thrown the world game into chaos by their unwillingness to travel, Australia would want the RFL to underwrite that trip so that any loss incurred by unscheduled, largely unpromoted games would be ours, and ours alone.

You can already hear the grateful chorus echoing across the rugby league heartlands of the north of England. "Thanks, mate, thanks a bloody lot."