In the history of top grade Rugby League in Australia, there are only 16 players since 1908 that have played 300 or more clubs games.
Think about that for a moment. For the thousands of players who have pulled on one of the famous Rugby League jerseys of either an NSWRL, ARL or NRL club, only 16 have had a career that has spanned longer than 300 games. It is a testament to the intensity of the competition and it is seen as a great honour to be one of the select few to surpass the universally recognized milestone.
So considering that even an above average NRL star is looking at 300 games ceiling on their career, is it any wonder why they would be less than enthusiastic to throw their bodies into a contest who meaning, while while intended, ultimately won’t have any baring on their overall career?
The NRL All Star game on paper is a fantastic concept, but it is one that is fractured in the sense that it offers a very different outcome depending on which side you get selected for.
For an Indigenous NRL All Star player, the meaning of this game is very clear. The chance to celebrate the history and contribution that Aboriginal players have had on Rugby League is one that every selected player carries with great honour. In this sense, the All Star game is a fantastic concept and the NRL has led the way for all Australian sports in showcasing Aboriginal talent and using the game to push many great causes for Aboriginal people in Australia.
To balance this up, the NRL All Stars team boasts that it is a side selected by fans. A chance for players to feel a sense of recognition for their achievements in the game. However it is clear that an NRL All Stars player is playing for a lot less than an Indigenous All Stars player, and that is something I don’t think the game can ignore any longer.
The NRL All Stars, at the end of the day, are on a hiding to nothing. When I watch the game as a fan, of course I want to see the Indigenous All Stars to get up! To win the game really means something to them, and when it comes down to it, the ideal victory would come from a spectacular late try to give the Indigenous All Star team a famous victory and for us to all be able to celebrate with them, every, single, year.
If you doubt this is the game then ask yourself how long this concept would last if the NRL All Stars team racked up a few big wins in back to back season. How many of those could the All Star Game concept actually survive? Three, maybe four lopsided games at most?
NRL All Star Players are rightfully proud when they get chosen by fans to represent their club and the game in general in the All Stars Game. However, as the pre season starts coming to a close and players start to focus on the club season ahead, the NRL All Star game goes from being an honour, to being something of a distraction. Well intended, but still a distraction.
At this point of a player pre season preparation, how many of them really want to take a good week and a half away from their NRL clubs and spend that time focusing energy on something that isn’t the ultimate goal of winning an NRL title? How many want to put in all the time traveling, doing media and charity work, breaking their regular training routine and possibly risking injury for a game that, come September, few will put any real value into?
If you thought you maybe be able to only do something 300 times, and by October if everything goes well, you maybe have ticked 20-30 of those occasions off your total forever, wouldn’t you be hesitant in when and where you applied yourself?
When it comes down to it, there is simply not enough incentive in the grand scheme of things for a player to really want to go out of their way to play for the NRL All Stars, and with every withdrawal of a selected player, the honour diminishes for appearance that puts you on a hiding to nothing anyway.
Some have suggested that you can get over this with offering more money to players that take part in the game, but this is a short sighted band aid fix that would not only cheapen the entire game and make it prohibitively expensive to hold. You also have to consider that, with the NRL salary cap about to rise considerably, one off appearance fee’s are going to become less of an incentive anyway when compared to a players growing overall salary anyway.
I personally believe the way you save the All Star Game concept is to give the opponents of the Indigenous All Stars team something to play for. Their own cause. Their own reason to be proud.
I would have the Indigenous All Stars team playing against a Polynesian All Stars side.
Imagine having a chance to celebrate two groups of players who both contribute so much to the game. You’d be giving players of Polynesian decent a chance to play in a big time representative fixture while at the same time honouring them for the incredible and growing contribution they make to the game as a whole.
With recent work the NRL has been doing with Polynesian leadership camps, it would be a natural progression to see a Polynesian team coming together as a representative side anyway. Who knows, an All Star Team may become a stepping stone for a combined Polynesian Test side that would be able to take on the likes of Australia and New Zealand on a regular basis and provide a much needed point of difference in international Rugby League.
While in an ideal world the likes of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands and so on would play as individual nations, the reality right now is that the interest from sponsors, clubs and television just isn’t there for these teams to get the exposure to the top level that they truly do deserve.
As a combined side however, they become a top draw. Try arguing against a Polynesia test team playing against New Zealand if you can get 20,000 people into a stadium in Auckland to watch such a game.
The Polynesian community is crying out for representation. Having been at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup when Tonga played Samoa, it was incredible to see how two massive communities got so excited and come to a game, not so much to see who won, but just to have a chance to see themselves represented on a big stage like that. Maybe a Polynesian All Star side is therefore the way to go, with having the longer term goal to have the side playing test football until such time as the game can afford to give Pacific Islands nations the chance to stand on their own two feet and play the likes of Australia an New Zealand themselves.
What ever the case, the current All Star concept come off as a half finished product, with one side having everything to play for, while the other is asked to be happy just to be there.
In a brutal game like Rugby League, the truth is that an All Star jersey just isn’t worth burning a 1 in 300 chance on.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com
Aug 10, 2022 0