Samoa tournament for minnows a first step towards landing big fish of India, China

The rugby league world order has been shaken in the past few days – Sonny Bill Williams signed a record contract with Super League side Toronto Wolfpack, followed by a public holiday in Tonga to celebrate the team defeating Australia – but a potentially bigger event has just taken place in Samoa.

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has announced a World Nines tournament to be held next October in the capital, Apia, backed by Chinese money and played in a Beijing-funded stadium.

Samoa PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, World Nines Samoa chairman Paul Broughton, WNS CEO Beverley Broughton and WNS director Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale.

A Chinese team will compete in the three-day event, as well as an Indian team, two nations with little background in rugby union and none in league. Teams at the World Nines will play for the Confederation Cup, and it has been sanctioned by International Rugby League. It is open to both men's and women's teams.

Nines is seen as a perfect vehicle for countries with little history in the traditional 13-a-side game. A delegation from China signed several agreements with the Samoan government last month, including funding for the tournament, but the announcement was delayed until Friday’s ceremony at the historic Aggie Greys hotel in Apia.

The tournament excludes past or present NRL or Super League players and is designed to grow rugby league in developing countries. It is an initiative of rugby league’s oldest and most passionate active official, 88-year-old Paul Broughton: the former chairman of the Titans, special projects officer under John Quayle at NSWRL, coach of Balmain and ex-Dragons player.

Broughton has been occasionally ridiculed for his belief rugby league should be taken to the world’s most populous two nations, China and India. He travelled to Shanghai at his own expense, developed relationships with universities, identified athletic talent and attempted to position players with NRL clubs.

New frontier: Paul Broughton with Chinese rugby league players in 2016.

Yet, when he points to the huge potential of linking Australia’s growing Chinese population with rugby league, the standard answer from officials is, “we’ll get interested when a Chinese halfback plays for the Dragons.”

The decision of the Samoan government to host a tournament, and China to back it financially, is the first step in Broughton’s quest. He is not deluded into believing China’s investment is altruistic – promoting an alternative variety of football for its youth. China is using the Pacific islands to further its trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative.

Australia and the US are competing with China for soft power in the Pacific. It was, therefore, no surprise when Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the role of water boy in a match between Australia and Fiji last month in Suva.

Broughton and his wife Beverley have worked on their World Nines project for two years, seeking a vehicle to both promote the code and arrest the drain of Pacific players. About 50 per cent of NRL players have Pacific heritage, as do the All Blacks. Almost every French team includes a Fijian winger.

He has long argued that fees should be paid through a foundation to compensate both Samoan rugby codes for developing a product the rest of the world wants to own.

The big question is how will an 88-year-old and his wife pull it off? The IRL has sanctioned the tournament and given its support but has limited resources. Australia is already funding loss-making Pacific Test matches.

With no recognised elite players competing, the tournament will not be attractive to rugby league broadcasters and will draw minimal fees for media rights, but it will be streamed to China. An innovative sponsorship has been arranged but organisers need skilled assistance.

Perhaps this is why a press release, jointly agreed by the Samoan government and Broughton’s Sport Strategic Group, made an appeal to, “all those volunteers, those who are coaches, referees, game officials, operational managers, media, assisting coaches, indeed any position that is required, for the conduct of the game of rugby league at any level, here is an event that presents itself on the world stage. For those who volunteer and those who seek a possible career in the sport, this is the ideal event.”

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