Exclusive: Ambitious RFL have World Cup ambitions

New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney
New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney
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Rugby Football League chairman Richard Lewis believes the sport can rise to enjoy the same sort of massive global exposure as its more celebrated union rivals.

It is a bold assertion but, as the Gillette Four Nations gets underway this evening with holders New Zealand facing Australia at Warrington ahead of tomorrow’s contest between England and Wales at Leigh, Lewis remains confident it is eventually attainable.

England will host the next Rugby League World Cup in 2013 meaning the current competition is a perfect opportunity to fine tune their plans to stage a memorable occasion.

It is certainly destined to be more of a success than the last time they hosted the tournament in 2000, a disaster which left the disorganised RFL in financial disarray.

However, seeing the vast pulling power of the rugby union event which culminated with the All Blacks winning in Auckland on Sunday, a television audience of more than four billion people having viewed the tournament, must have left league bosses envious.

“It’s not so much envy,” Lewis told the Yorkshire Post. “When you see a tournament like the Rugby Union World Cup, it just means you know the potential of the Rugby League World Cup.

“It (union) was only started 24 years ago and we have seen how it has developed.

“The 2013 World Cup here is set up in such a way with the support we’re getting that we know we’re on the same pathway; the union version is a sign of things to come for the Rugby League World Cup.

“That’s how we see it and it’s definitely important we have a good Four Nations to build towards that.

“I’m confident we will and by the end of this tournament, people will be saying the next major international tournament we’re hosting here in England is going to be a World Cup which is an exciting prospect.”

As too is the actual Four Nations with Lewis predicting it to be the most closely-contested yet.

Reigning world champions Kiwis and traditional giants Australia have each suffered their fair share of injuries, opening up the potential prospect of England finally ending their 39-year long wait for international success.

New Zealand were also swept away by Australia 42-6 in a friendly less than a fortnight ago but Lewis said: “New Zealand have a track record of pulling off surprises in tournaments and it will be interesting to see how they react to that loss in Newcastle.

“Australia are Australia – what does one need to say about them? – everyone knows on paper they are the best team in the world.

“But England have shown really exciting signs and Wales, as tournament underdogs, will be looking to maintain their proud tradition of defying the odds to build on their achievement of winning the 2010 European Cup.”

The opening two games are close to capacity but all eyes will be on next week’s Wembley double-header when England tackle Australia and the Kiwis face Wales.

It is the first time international rugby league will have ventured to the famous venue since 1997 and Lewis is confident the innovative concept will prove worthwhile even if Wembley might not be half full.

“People I speak to are really excited by the idea,” he said.

“Ticket sales are going well but as regards attendances we’ve always said anything over 40,000 I think we’ll be pleased with.

“I think that will be good for rugby league back in London for the first time in 14 years and, as we stand, it’ll be guaranteed a really good atmosphere.

“The lower belt will be pretty full and supporters shouldn’t under-estimate how the international game is a great way of seeing the world’s best players competing, especially with people like Darren Lockyer playing over here for the last time.”

The RFL has invested heavily in giving England coach Steve McNamara all the tools he requires to make his mark on the international squad and players this week have remarked that it is time for them to now deliver.

It would also be a significant fillip in those preparations for 2013 and Lewis said: “There’s no substitute for winning. They know that.

“But the atmosphere I sense is certainly not one of pressure.

“We are investing but are only investing in what they deserve.

“Most observers will see there is a lot of talent in that squad,” he added.

“They are capable of being very successful and playing really successful rugby league.

“We know they have the talent and ability to go against the form book and do it and want to give them the best opportunity to do that.

“I was down at Loughborough University on Tuesday and their training facilities there are world class but it’s not pressure I sense, more opportunity.”