6 key talking points ahead of the 16th Rugby League World Cup
Twelve months later than planned, the 16th World Cup gets under way with the first of 61 matches across all three formats in Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.
Here, the PA news agency examines the key talking points surrounding what organisers say will be the biggest and best tournament yet.
Better late than never
The four-yearly World Cup cycle was broken by the knock-on effects of the pandemic which ultimately forced the postponement of the tournament last autumn when it would have enjoyed the benefits of being the only major event of 2021.
It will be going up against cricket’s T20 World Cup in Australia but has been arranged to finish before the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and organisers are hoping for a spin-off for the women’s event from England’s successful Euro 2022 Championship.
Of course, organisers have had another 12 months to raise awareness and market games so, despite having to initially refund tickets, they remain confident of making the tournament a huge success on and off the field.
Australia remain the clear favourites but there are genuine challengers
Australia will go into the tournament fourth in the latest world rankings according to the International Rugby League’s latest list but only because they have not played a match since 2019 and they are the bookmakers odds-on favourites to retain their crown.
New Zealand, who won the title in 2008, top the rankings and, with a star-studded team, are sure to improve on their performance in 2017 when they failed to reach the last four after losing to both Tonga and Fiji.
Tonga emerged as a force five years ago and have since beaten Australia and Great Britain, while Samoa are boosted by the availability of a host of star players who could have played for the big two.
England obviously have home advantage but have a tough opener against the Samoans and, if they lose that, they will most likely face a quarter-final against the Tongans so Shaun Wane’s men face an arduous route to the final.
What sort of crowds can we expect?
Organisers announced three weeks ago that ticket sales had passed 300,000 and they are edging ever closer to the 382,080 aggregate total for the last World Cup in Australia in 2017.
Although organisers remain confident they can improve on the aggregate total of 458,483 for the last home World Cup in 2013, their target of 750,000 now seems overly ambitious in light of the cost-of-living crisis.
However, there will be over 40,000 at St James’ Park for Saturday’s opening game between England and Samoa and organisers say the other big games are close to selling out.
Whatever the outcome on the field, World Cup officials believe the work that has gone into organising the 2021 tournament over the last seven years will leave a lasting legacy.
Of the Government’s original grant of £25million, £15m went towards the organisational costs with £10m to be distributed in small and major grants to community clubs.
An independent report which looked at the social impact of the tournament hailed the success of mental health and volunteering programmes, while match funding generated around £21m for extra facilities, including 38 new clubhouses, 22 changing rooms and 18 pitches.
Organisers managed to turn an initial investment of £635,000 into a total of £25.8m, with the effect of improving physical and mental fitness, strengthening communities, boosting the local economy and growing the game internationally.
What chance to do the other home nations have?
Scotland are perennial over-achievers in the World Cup and will fancy their chances of opening up with a win over Italy before facing the daunting task of facing Australia and their chances of getting out of the group are no more than 50-50.
Ireland have a new coach in Ged Corcoran and are boosted by the availability of vastly-experienced half-backs Richie Myler and Luke Keary. They should get off to a winning start against Jamaica but will be big underdogs against Lebanon and New Zealand.
Wales, with the canny John Kear in charge for a second-successive World Cup, find themselves in the “group of pain” alongside Pacific heavyweights Tonga and Papua New Guinea, as well as the Cook Islands. Without a win in 2017, they will be confident of breaking their duck against the Cooks but it would be a major shock if they got out of the group.
What can we expect from Jamaica?
The World Cup debutants, who began playing rugby league in the Caribbean in 2004, attempted without success to qualify for the tournaments of 2013 and 2017 but made it third time lucky when they beat the United States and Canada to book their place for 2021.
Had the tournament gone ahead as scheduled, the Reggae Warriors would have had the considerable presence of Newcastle Knights’ blockbusting winger Dom Young in their side but he has since taken his game to even greater heights and will now be playing for England.
Jamaica will have the services of Dom’s brother Alex, a winger from Workington, and Huddersfield’s Ashton Golding and Michael Lawrence will provide experience and nous but their squad comprises largely part-time players and their defeat by Cumbria in their warm-up fixture suggests they could be in a for tough time.