The return of Sonny Bill Williams and a renaissance in international rugby league is set to take the game to new heights if administrators are savvy enough to make the most of the opportunity, says FOGS Executive Chairman Gene Miles.
The world of rugby league is a very different place than what it was five years ago, with an extraordinary couple of months seeing the game spread its wings internationally like few times in the game’s history.
Firstly, new Canadian franchise the Toronto Wolfpack won promotion to the 2020 Super League season.
The Wolfpack then doubled-down on that success by signing cross-code superstar Williams in a huge coup, bringing the World Cup winner back to league from the All Blacks.
The Williams signing is the biggest in the history of either code – reportedly $10 million for two years – and was announced at a packed press conference held at London’s Emirates Stadium, the home of Premier League Football giants Arsenal.
The news sent a shockwave through the sporting world, generating headlines across Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, Canada and the US.
It also sparked a surge from sponsors and media outlets looking to get involved in the historic 2020 campaign, which will be Williams’ first in rugby league since he departed the Roosters at the end of 2014.
“The story of the Wolfpack is just incredible,” Miles said. “They started out small in third division of the English rugby league competition, but they had big ambitions and worked their way up.
“Now they are the hottest talking point in the game, and they have just made the biggest signing in the history of the code.
“What they are doing for rugby league is just enormous. They have people talking about rugby league in Canada and the United States – areas where the game has always wanted to breakthrough, but struggled to get a foothold.
“They have slowly built up a great following in Toronto, and have gone from being a bit of an oddity to selling out their little ground at Lamport Stadium. It only holds 9000 people, but that is 9000 Canadians now queuing up to get a ticket to watch rugby league, and that is a big deal.”
Miles said he had no doubt that Williams would prove to be a good investment for the Wolfpack.
“Look, it is a huge amount of money, but he has already gone some way to paying that off with the interest he is generating and the sponsors he is attracting,” Miles said.
“He is a genuine superstar, and the crowds in England will turn out to see him play.
“There’s no doubt that he is still good enough to be a star in Super League, even at 34. His style of game, with his off-loads and big hits in defence, will be a perfect fit for the Super League.”
Miles said the excitement around Williams and the Wolfpack was part of a larger surge in popularity for rugby league worldwide – driven by the rise of some smaller nations into Test football powerhouses.
In recent weeks, Tonga have beaten the World Champion Kangaroos and the British Lions, while Papua New Guinea also humiliated Wayne Bennett’s Lions 28-10 – the first time the Kumuls have beaten Great Britain since 1992.
In the first time the Lions have toured in 23 years, they lost all four Test matches – including a two-Test series against New Zealand.
“The international results were just huge for the game, and exactly what international league needed,” Miles said. “We went through a period for a few years where Test footy lost its way, but the Pacific nations like Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and PNG have closed the gap to the top countries.
“We now have professional league teams competing in Australia, New Zealand, PNG, England, France and Canada, and there is talk of another Super League team being set up in New York as well.
“The game has a tremendous opportunity here to go to the next level, and breakthrough into new audiences that could see the game’s popularity sky-rocket if we are good enough to make the most of those opportunities.
“We all know the product is good enough. Rugby league is the best game in the world. For too long though, it has just been our little secret down here. But those times are changing. The word is getting out, and that is great news for rugby league.”