David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

League: Kiwis score points on home tests

Australia are making noises about playing transtasman tests on a home-and-away basis but David Skipwith argues that we should be wary after so many broken promises.
The Kiwis haven't played Australia at home since the Four Nations final in Wellington in late 2014. Photo / Getty Images
The Kiwis haven't played Australia at home since the Four Nations final in Wellington in late 2014. Photo / Getty Images

The days of Australia staging almost every transtasman test are seemingly nearing an end, with New Zealand set to share hosting rights from 2018 when the NRL's new broadcast deal begins.

Australian Rugby League Commission boss John Grant said both countries are poised to host alternate tests between the Kangaroos and Kiwis once the current broadcast deal expires at the end of 2017, with the New Zealand Rugby League hopeful of hosting a match against Australia at the end of 2018.

And the NZRL have also begun talks with Samoa about playing a mid-year test against the Kiwis in 2018 as a replacement for the annual Anzac test, which will discontinue after next year.

Despite the Kiwis enjoying unprecedented success in claiming the world's No1 test ranking on the back of three consecutive victories over Australia, New Zealand have not hosted a test since Stephen Kearney's side downed the Kangaroos in the 2014 Four Nations final in Wellington.

The Kiwis have hosted just two mid-year Anzac tests (1998 and 2012) since the annual fixture was established in 1997, and have again been denied rights to both this year's transtasman games, with Newcastle claiming the Anzac test on May 6 and Perth awarded the end-of-year encounter on October 15.

"It will change from 2018 because we'll have a new broadcast agreement that will change that," said Grant. "It should be a home-and-away-based series. That's what should happen.

"We're [currently] locked into particular times that the game has to be shown in Australia, and no one gets any money unless that happens. In order to do that, you can't have a 9pm kickoff here in New Zealand.

"You should have home and away. You should have one here, one there, and that's where we'll be heading."

It would be easy to be a little sceptical of the rhetoric.

Grant, also deputy chairman of the international federation, is making all the right noises but the NZRL have been let down before and denied games promised to them, including last year's Anzac test to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.

The belief that Australia holds an insular view of the world game was further reinforced last year when the ARLC announced plans to scrap the Anzac test after 2017, without informing the NZRL.

Despite past disappointments, the NZRL believe the Australians genuinely want to foster the international game and insist transtasman relations are improving.

"At times, some of the communication from the ARL hasn't been the best with us," said NZRL interim chief executive Alex Hayton. "We've crossed a barrier and I think the relationship is at a different level now and it's only going to get stronger.

"I'm fairly confident we will get a 2018 test match in October in New Zealand against Australia. We're pushing that the first one will be in New Zealand because it's long overdue.

"They have acknowledged how previous arrangements handicapped New Zealand's ability to have matches and generate revenue and they know they owe us one."

Grant understands the common perception from these shores that the ARLC are focused on serving Australia's best interests, and admits New Zealand were overlooked when the NRL signed off on their current broadcast agreement with Australian television network Channel Nine.

"I'll confess they were unwitting decisions. When we made the decisions for the current rights back in 2012, there are some things that slipped through the cracks and that's one of them," he said. "I understand that people might see that as arrogance but it's really not."

Interestingly, Australia's new-found commitment to the international cause coincides with the Anzac test fixture ending and State of Origin retaining its place as the NRL's showpiece.

The change in the season structure protects Origin's place and also allows the ARLC to streamline their representative team selections, but newly appointed Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga believes it will also create more playing opportunities for New Zealand.

"You can argue the point but it won't stop New Zealand from playing a [mid-year] game," said Meninga. "It will be more fruitful and financial if we play at the end of the year and, because of that, I think New Zealand benefits from it."

Meninga acknowledges that New Zealand have been let down by the current situation that prevents them from hosting one-off tests against the Kangaroos.

Greg Eastwood and the Kiwis want more opportunities to entertain and inspire New Zealand league fans in person. Photo / Getty Images
Greg Eastwood and the Kiwis want more opportunities to entertain and inspire New Zealand league fans in person. Photo / Getty Images

"I actually sympathise with that. One of the things we're looking at at the moment is we need to reinvigorate the game [in New Zealand]."

He also admits the Kangaroos' recent run of defeats to the Kiwis has inspired a new focus on improving Australia's international programme. The former Kangaroos captain wants to see test football become a priority for Australian players, who have long viewed Origin as the world's most competitive and prestigious arena.

"It has, absolutely. We got a little complacent and that's one of the reasons why they had the big review last year around the international programme. It will help propagate the game internationally and it will help New Zealand and England and try to get our players excited about the international programme, too."

Meninga's move into the Australian job from his post as Queensland coach might help inject enthusiasm into his players but the words of Queensland and Kangaroos playmaker Johnathan Thurston illustrate how tough a sell it can be.

"There's no higher honour than representing your country and putting on that Kangaroos jersey, which I love doing," Thurston said.

"But there's just something about State of Origin that brings out the best in you and I certainly love that environment as well.

"Hopefully we can continue to build up international football. We've got the World Cup next year and the Four Nations at the end of this year, so I know the boys are looking forward to both of those."

The NZRL have often proposed the idea of their own Origin concept but this always proved too difficult. They now have their sights on a mid-year test in 2018 as a replacement for the Anzac test, with Samoa a likely opponent. Despite the long distance and difficulties around travel, a test against England is another option.

"We've had an approach to, depending on when the Origin window is, maybe play Samoa around their Independence Day in June," said Hayton. "So there are opportunities there and we have to be open to them."

Kiwis co-captain Adam Blair says more home tests are long overdue and essential to combatting rugby's dominance in New Zealand.

"It is hard and it is disappointing because we all love coming home and playing," said Blair.

"We're obviously trying to grow the game back here and it's a bit hard when the All Blacks have been going so well for years.

"For us to do well, it's important for us to try to get a lot of games back in New Zealand."

It's up to Australia now to finally be true to their word.

- Herald on Sunday

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