With five real contenders for the men’s crown, and the women’s and wheelchair tournaments getting a deserved showcase, the sport has an incredible platform
It was the then RFL chairman, Brian Barwick, who was given the task of making the opening remarks when England were awarded the right to host the 2021 Rugby League World Cup six years ago. More than 2,100 days have passed since then and plenty has changed; there has been significant turnover at the top of the sport, there has been a global pandemic leading to a 12-month delay and constant uncertainty but on Saturday, at long last, the action gets under way.
One thing that remains the same is Barwick’s belief that, if executed correctly, this tournament could be transformative for a sport that faces a fascinating future on and off the field. Make no mistake about it: rugby league in this country seldom gets opportunities on a stage as significant as this.
Every game is live on the BBC’s platforms and three groundbreaking tournaments are running side by side. Organisers, led by the tournament’s impressive chief executive, Jon Dutton, have promised the biggest and most inclusive Rugby League World Cup. In Newcastle, the talking will finally cease as the men’s tournament begins with England taking on Samoa at St James’ Park.
A crowd approaching 45,000 is expected – presumably not just to watch the pre-match entertainment from the Kaiser Chiefs – and with a five-figure attendance expected at Australia v Fiji later in the evening at Headingley, the biggest opening-day crowd for a Rugby League World Cup is guaranteed.
But that is not the only record organisers hope to set. For the first time, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments will take place simultaneously. It will be a celebration of something rugby league does better than most: championing inclusivity and diversity.
All of this at a time when IMG, the media company that has signed a 12-year deal with the sport’s governing bodies, is watching to see how its future plans for the sport are shaped by the success of the World Cup, too. You would hope at the very least they see that the buzz which international rugby league generates means it has to be put at the top of their agenda to revamp the game.
There are countless stories to track. Australia are again the undoubted favourites in the men’s event, but the disdain their administrators have shown for the international game in recent years by barely booking the Kangaroos to play any fixtures has created an interesting dynamic, with numerous high-profile NRL players switching allegiance to Pacific nations, including Tonga and Samoa.
It means that, with England and New Zealand among the favourites as always, five nations genuinely believe they have a chance of winning. Whether it ends up with the familiar outcome of the Kangaroos lifting the trophy at Old Trafford on 19 November remains to be seen, but picking the lineup of the semi‑finalists is, for once, by no means a straightforward task.
The strength of the competition is underlined by the opener. England are underdogs against a Samoan side who have prised some serious talent away from Australia. It can only be a good thing for international rugby league’s long-term prospects that there is now such strength in depth and that the game is far more difficult to predict.
Defeat for England would almost certainly mean a second-place finish in Group A, with no disrespect intended either to France and Greece, their other two pool opponents. That would mean a quarter-final with Tonga before a potential rematch with Samoa just to reach the final. But there is some good news for England: the Kangaroos and the Kiwis are on the opposite half of the draw, so only one can make the final.
Mainstays for England such as the captain, Sam Tomkins, accompany a new-look group of players including St Helens’ mercurial Jack Welsby and the NRL sensations Dom Young and Herbie Farnworth. England are a bit of an unknown quantity, which is both exciting and nerve-racking given that success here, with such a huge audience watching, could indeed be transformative as Barwick suggested.
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The Rugby Football League did not properly build on the 2013 World Cup on these shores, but there is change afoot at the governing body. That change should have happened already given the disparaging comments made by the chief executive, Ralph Rimmer, towards the Fiji team. But he was only given a slap on the wrist rather than being suspended, casting a familiar administrative shadow over the tournament. Rimmer, thankfully, will leave anyway in December.
Whoever takes over has the chance to build on a tournament filled with intrigue. Away from the heavyweights, debutants Jamaica and Greece have had incredible journeys just to reach this point. The women’s tournament will see England aim to replicate the exploits of football’s Lionesses this summer, but they have competition from the Australian Jillaroos and debutants Brazil, whose players have trained in isolation and given up jobs just to represent their country at the tournament.
The wheelchair tournament will be the biggest celebration of inclusivity rugby league has ever seen. Those new to the sport are in for a real treat.
Sixty-one matches across three tournaments in five unforgettable weeks. Rugby league in England has waited a long time for a moment as important as this. The waiting is almost over.