Rugby League

Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga calls for Auckland Nines to become international

Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has called for the Nines to become an international tournament, believing the abridged version of rugby league can attract new audiences to the game in the same way the Big Bash League has for cricket.

The third edition of the Auckland Nines kicked off over the weekend, playing to packed houses at Eden Park and marking the unofficial start of the season. The tournament has become a major event on New Zealand's sporting calendar, while the rugby union world Sevens competition was a big-ticket event in Sydney.

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Meninga, appointed as Australian coach after a decade of dominance overseeing the Queensland State of Origin team, said part of his charter was reinvigorating the international program. The Raiders legend predicted that could include the return of Kangaroo tours, albeit in a different format, and an expansion of the Prime Minister's XIII itinerary. He also believed an international Nines event had the potential to expose league to new audiences.

"International Nines is an important part of growing the game globally," Meninga said.

"I saw  [ARLC chairman] John Grant mentioning recently that the next CEO should have that focus, growing rugby league and the brand globally.

"The international Nines would be a good way of doing it.

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"You could do it off-season, you don't want to encroach on club commitments. You don't need to be playing our best players all the time, you can rest them. You could make it a genuine emerging program.

"At the moment the PM's team are selected from players who don't play in the finals and you've got players pulling out all the time, it's not a genuine Australian team in my mind.

"If you play it out of season the best players, and the next-best players are playing in all of those competitions."

The BBL is the best example of fans flocking to a shortened version of a traditional sporting format. The average attendance was up 22 per cent, to 28,346, for the 2015-16 edition, while television ratings were up 11 per cent. The biggest benefit has been encouraging young fans to cricket at a time when there were fears of a decline in interest in Test matches.

"A lot of money needs to be spent around the event itself but you look at the international Sevens, it's played around the world," Meninga said.

"You wouldn't be doing that but you could do a shortened version. You could have the top 16 international teams based on rankings through the year to play in those tournaments with three or four rotations through the world. You could have Hong Kong, Singapore, wherever you've got great support for that type of event.

"I could see that happening down the track. We need to put our heads together, come up with the right formula and we'll see things like that to showcase our game. We need to expose people to the game of rugby league."

State of Origin is widely considered the pinnacle of rugby league, surpassing international football as the most anticipated representative fixture. Meninga has played no small role in the rise in popularity of the interstate game, first as a player and then a coach. However, his aim is to restore the green and gold jersey to its rightful place as the one most cherished by footballers, particularly after a spate of high-profile withdrawals from recent Test sides.

"We want players to be aspiring to put on that green and gold jersey and position the Kangaroos as the No.1 representative aspiration in rugby league," said Meninga following the launch of the end of season Australia-New Zealand Test in Perth.

"We can only achieve that by making the international program relevant.

"The way to do that is creating that environment for the players."

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