RUGBY Football League chief executive Nigel Wood has staunchly defended their scheduling of Ladbrokes Four Nations games despite criticism of the tournament’s make-up.
While England not making the final of this autumn’s competition was a major let-down, there was also dismay from some supporters about where and when fixtures were staged.
For example, England played Scotland at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on the evening of November 5 – world champions Australia v holders New Zealand following straight after in a double-header – but many families opted not to go due to it being Bonfire Night.
It attracted a crowd of just 21,009 while the opener between Scotland and Australia saw only 5,337 turn up at Hull KR on a Friday night.
Admittedly, England’s game with the Kiwis at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium was a 24,000 sell-out, but the prime fixture of England v Australia at London Stadium brought a disappointing attendance of 35,569.
That was almost 9,000 fewer than watched the Kiwis there 12 months earlier when a venue in the north, to see the revered Kangaroos, would surely have garnered a far bigger crowd than either.
For a second year running, there were frustrating issues for supporters on the day at London Stadium actually getting their tickets in time for kick-off.
Also, Scotland played New Zealand in Workington and produced a brilliant draw – but it came on the same night as Scotland’s football team faced England in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley.
On the whole subject, Wood said: “There’s no easy solutions to this.
“What we did as organisers was try to find a balance between playing in all the major conurbations of the country, playing in the capital – in terms of you want your national team to play there – and looking at an expansion area such as the West Midlands.
“We also had to dovetail that with actual stadium availability. Can you actually get on a ground at a particular day? When you don’t have a national stadium, you become a taker of a day rather than a maker of a day.
“That was particularly the case in London – there was only the one day to do it on – which has ramifications for all of the other backfilling, if you will. So, it’s not straightforward. Then, finally, you’ve got your broadcast partner who only has slots available at certain times.
“We have to be careful not to be too apologetic; we had more people watch the Four Nations than the previous time we had it here.”
This is true albeit marginally; there was a total of 132,655 (18,951 per match), compared to 128,065 (18,295 per match) in 2011.
Wood added: “We played in different parts of the country and got crowds at least as good as if we played them in what we call traditional centres.
“We played in Cumbria, East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, the north-west, the Midlands and London. There was a lot of discussion about trying to get that perfect blend. People can always pick at one point and say, ‘what about that?’, but all of these things have to be adjusted because of that; it was a sweep of measures rather than just one individual game.
“With Coventry, it might have been a cold night, but we played in a new territory and north of 30 per cent, maybe 35 per cent, of ticket purchases came from within an hour of that venue. These are people who would not ordinarily get to see rugby league.
“We have to try and make our mind up, are we trying to be national or not?
“I don’t think it was that troublesome. We’d have liked a few more thousand, but I thought Anfield was excellent for the final and there was a lot of discussion in advance about whether that should be the right place to go.
“But I think we were rewarded. We do, as a sport, beat ourselves up enormously on these things but we had 40,000 in to watch a final (Australia v New Zealand) without the home team in it. That takes some doing.
“That’s more than Australia v New Zealand got when they played in Perth. We just have to be balanced in our analysis.”
Between the 2017 and 2021 World Cups, Wood has not ruled out a return of Great Britain for the first time since 2007 – opening the enticing prospect of an Ashes series either here or in Australia.
Also, he gave his firm backing to Wayne Bennett despite the new England coach failing to reach that Anfield showpiece after losing to both the Kangaroos and New Zealand.
“Although there is disappointment that we didn’t make the final, I think the five weeks that he spent with the players were invaluable,” Wood said about the legendary Australian, who succeeded Steve McNamara in January and could yet extend his contract beyond next year’s World Cup.
“I think they all benefited as a consequence of that. All of the feedback that I got, through observation and the written feedback that we asked the players to submit, was very positive.”
Bennett, however, has provoked stinging criticism from St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham over his plans to take between 18 and 20 Super League players to a pre-season training camp in early January, disrupting the clubs’ preparations for the new season, as well as organising a mid-season international in Sydney.
Wood insisted: “He’s challenged us. He’s challenged us organisationally, he’s challenged the sport in this country, saying this is what I think we need to do to become as good as the best in the world.
“But I would say unequivocally, in all the time I’ve worked in rugby league, that the clubs –the chairmen, the coaches, the owners, everybody – has shared a dream for the national team to be successful.
“You hear in other sports club v country issues, but I’ve genuinely never witnessed them.
“They know the thing that will light the touchpaper for the sport to be successful in this country is for the national team to be sustainable and competitive.
“That will bring a dividend among everybody then.”