New Zealand Rugby League chairman Reon Edwards is confident of fielding a strong Kiwis lineup for the landmark test against England in Denver but the Warriors still have major reservations about the concept.
The NZRL may have announced a deal to take a test to the US over the next three years but they have their work cut out easing the player welfare concerns from the 16 NRL clubs as well as the Rugby League Players Association.
The Warriors could supply as many as eight Kiwis players for the test, which is due to be played on June 23 during the new stand alone representative round.
However, chief executive Cameron George fears the impact the 24,000km round trip could have on his players in the middle of the season, particularly with the Warriors travelling to North Queensland the Friday before the test.
“We support international rugby league but we have real concerns around the travel arrangements and we have real concerns around the timing of the year,” George said.
“We play Cowboys on the Friday night and there couldn’t be a worse team to travel to in the NRL. Then to have to back up and travel to Denver, through Los Angeles and another trip, so we’ve really got to evaluate everything.”
George wants the international game to grow and will spend the next week discussing the test with his representative players.
“But at the end of the day, we will not jeopardise player welfare and will not jeopardise what we’re here to do which is to win an NRL premiership,” George said.
“If we don’t believe it’s right for our club and players in terms of welfare, we’ll challenge it.”
The NZRL have put together a team of medical experts, led by NZRL medical director Simon Mayhew, to address the clubs’ concerns over travel, altitude (Denver is 1609 metres above sea level), recovery and player wellbeing.
They have also sought input from high performance staff of Super Rugby franchises, who deal with strong travel demands and play regularly at altitude in South Africa.
Edwards said he had personally been in contact with clubs as they look to ensure the best possible players are available to make the trip to the US.
“We face this problem every time we play test football, it’s the environment we operate in,” he said.
“There’s always that risk of clubs not releasing or advising that players are injured during international windows. But we’ll be backing ourselves and we’re just excited that we’ve got to this point but we know the hard work is only just beginning.”
Meanwhile, Edwards stood by the decision to go to Denver in favour of capitalising on Tonga’s successful World Cup last year.
Tonga’s upset win over the Kiwis and subsequent semifinal defeat against England drew some of the largest rugby league crowds in New Zealand in years and there would have been huge public interest in a rematch.
Commercially, though, playing in the US made the most sense for the NZRL, Edwards said.
It is understood they will receive $500,000 per test across the three years, with the event underwritten by promoters Moore Sports.
“We’re in the business of playing international football … that’s how we generate income as an organisation,” Edwards added.
“A three-year deal means that we’ve got some new income coming into New Zealand Rugby League which we can then invest into the grass roots.”
With the Kiwis hosting Australia in October before a three-test tour of England and a one-off clash against France, a Tonga test was always unlikely this year but it is something the NZRL will pursue in 2019.
“We are really keen to play Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Their success at the World Cup was tremendous so we’ll capitalise on that but it’s just not going to be in 2018.”