Jon Dutton aiming to deliver ‘biggest and best-ever’ Rugby League World Cup for 2021 tournament

Jon Dutton is aiming to deliver the 'biggest and best-ever' Rugby League World Cup in 2021. PIC: Alex Whitehead/
Jon Dutton is aiming to deliver the 'biggest and best-ever' Rugby League World Cup in 2021. PIC: Alex Whitehead/
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THERE is a wonderfully succinct and brutally honest answer from Jon Dutton when asked how his career path evolved to now being in charge of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

“I always aspired to be a professional rugby league player,” he tells The Yorkshire Post.

Jon Dutton. PIC: Simon Wilkinson/

Jon Dutton. PIC: Simon Wilkinson/

“But was never good enough or brave enough so chose the option of being a sports administrator...”

Since being taken to his first game in hometown Leigh by his dad in 1978, rugby league has certainly been Dutton’s first love.

It is, then, no surprise he has tackled the role of 2021 RLWC chief executive with such enthusiasm and enterprise.

However, to get to this point - he announced details of the tournament’s draw earlier this week - he has experienced a plethora of different roles in as many different sports.

Dutton has worked for the PGA European Golf Tour, the FA - with a secondment to UEFA for the 2003 Champions League final - and ran his own sports consultancy company for six years as well as being operations director for the last RL World Cup held here in 2013.

He was also director of readiness for the Tour de France Grand Depart when that arrived in the Broad Acres the following year, recalling: “It was an amazing experience, just to be part of the Grand Depart.

“It was a very big logistical undertaking - closing roads, working with local authorities - but what a spectacle: the sun shone, Yorkshire was at its best, the pictures on TV were obviously utterly amazing.

“I was very proud to be a part of that and learning from a different sport with some significant challenges.

“For example, how you look after athletes in an open environment - where spectators don’t have to come through the turnstiles and pay but come to the side of the road or up a hill.

“All of that safety perspective was really interesting for me.”

Dutton will be hoping the faces of John Bateman, Jason Taumalolo and James Tedasco will be just as familiar as Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and Alberto Contador after the rugby league tournament has rode into town in two years’ time.

Preparations for the tournament, which will see the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions staged together for the first time, never stop but progression is pleasing.

“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Dutton said, as they seek to achieve their mission statement of being the ‘biggest and best-ever’ Rugby League World Cup.

“I’ve worked on the project for four years so four down, two to go. We still have a big job, as in our ambitions on ticket sales, but now it feels the tournament is really coming to life.

“We’ve had the qualifiers and now have the draw to look forward to in January. We’re trying to squeeze every last drop out of every little bit we can so that when the trophy is lifted and the fireworks go off that there are no regrets about any opportunity that we didn’t capitalise on.”

The 47-year-old and his team are leaving no stone unturned in their bid to ensure they tick off all their main targets which include being the most attended and viewed World Cup since its inception in 1954 and the most digitally connected sports entertainment event of 2021.

He added: “I would say we have an insatiable appetite to learn. We’ve travelled a lot this year. I was out in Japan for the Rugby World Cup as part of the official World Rugby Observer Programme.

“We’ve been to every single sporting event that there has been this year in the UK from cricket to netball and we are so keen to learn from others; we don’t have all the answers.

“We’re obviously living in a world that is changing before our eyes so we have to deliver something that isn’t contemporary; we aspire to attract a new audience as well as serving the core rugby league fan. We have to do that in a slightly different way to ever before.

“My learning from Japan was tapping into a market that wasn’t necessarily primed for the sport.

“When you look at the targets broadly - two million tickets sold, 1.5 million to the local market and half a million overseas visitors - we learnt a lot about the customer journey and new approaches to ticketing. I think those lessons will really help us.”

A total of 21 venues will be used across the three tournaments in 2021 with Yorkshire boasting eight: Emerald Headingley and Elland Road in Leeds, Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium, Hull’s KCOM Stadium, Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium, the LNER York Community Stadium and the Riverside in Middlesbrough.

Attracting fresh faces to the sport is key and Dutton conceded: “We have to get to new people, people whose interest is piqued by the mention of a World Cup - capital W, capital C. The UK has done an amazing job and is synonymous with staging great sporting events in front of sell-out capacity crowds whether that’s athletics, netball, cricket.

“But Japan really crystallised to us the approach needed where maybe the audience isn’t as educated as the core community.

“And we do have a wonderful rugby league audience who I am sure are looking forward to seeing Tonga play, and see Papua New Guinea bring their vibrancy.

“We’ve just got to make sure we translate that into people that might not know much about RL or like it but pique interest with this global celebration.”

The 2013 World Cup here was clearly a success off the pitch in terms of exposure and revenue even if England’s hopes on it were dashed by the Kiwis in those last desperate seconds of a memorable Wembley semi-final.

In 2017, England reached the final in Brisbane but were undone by Australia who arrives here for a three-Test series next autumn which should help whet the appetite further for 2021.

In theory, then, they are edging closer to winning a first World Cup since Great Britain did so in 1972. Is that surely the perfect and ideal endgame?

“We have to stay neutral so we are looking after all 32 teams equally,” insisted Dutton.

“We’re a temporary company so we will cease to exist after the tournament and have to make sure we squeeze everything out of this. As for legacy, whether that’s the money we’re investing in capital facilities - £10m new money from government that we are using to make a difference in local communities - or inspiring volunteers, getting new spectators, the way they broadcast pictures are put across the globe, there are many different ways to do this.

“But we just want to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on rugby league to attract some new people to watch this incredible sport with amazing athletes and then the sport can kick on in particularly in the international perspective,

“International rugby league is going through a really good period; Tonga beating Australia this month and - I know it hurts for many - Papua New Guinea beating Great Britain, too, that just shows there are more rugby league nations than Australia, England and New Zealand.”

By the end of 2021, Dutton will hope to have helped emphatically prove that point - all the time never needing to be on a pitch to make his own mark on the sport.