ALWAYS a firm believer himself in the importance of international rugby league, Nigel Wood feels the hugely successful World Cup has convinced even its fiercest critics that it is the way forward.
As tournament director, he has been able to see the sport come to life over six weeks of intoxicating action, the results being plain for everyone to see.
The Old Trafford final itself was played out in front of a capacity 74,468, the biggest ever crowd for an international, while records were broken for league attendances in Wales and Ireland with sold-out signs up at seven different venues from Halifax to Avignon.
England matches proved a huge draw on the BBC, too, with almost three million people watching their epic Wembley semi-final against New Zealand, widely regarded as the greatest game of any sort in recent memory regardless of the hosts’ agonising last-second defeat.
With drama and thrills at every turn, the World Cup has been an unmitigated triumph and whetted the appetite for more international fare.
Eventual winners Australia, who had recently looked more inwardly at their pre-eminent domestic game rather than pushing the international calendar, have certainly been reminded of the impact it can generate and there is a hope they will host a reformed Great Britain once more in two years’ time.
Speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post, Wood said: “One of the real positive spin-offs of the World Cup is that anybody who had any doubts about the capacity for this part of the game to be viable, to entertain and to achieve visibility and profile for the sport, has had those preconceptions cast into the fold.
“This tournament has achieved an awful lot of positives for the international element of the game. Certainly the discussions we’ve had with all of our international colleagues have been very positive and complimentary about it.
“It’s been a wonderful celebration of the very best of rugby league over the last six weeks and a tribute to a lot of people who worked very hard planning and delivering it.
“We’ve had terrific contests played in front of full grounds, some sold out, a well-structured tournament and with the terrestrial coverage at the weekend it’s given the sport a major boost.
“It’s something the whole sport should feel proud of.”
It has only cemented Wood’s innate conviction that international football needs to be paramount.
The RFL chief executive was elected as vice-chairman of the Rugby League International Federation 18 months ago having worked in support of the RLIF for the past decade.
“I’ve always believed, if you are passionate about rugby league, really you watch as much as you can,” he said. “Whether it’s Castleford versus Wakefield or Dewsbury Celtic versus Dewsbury Moor there’s something in those local rivalries.
“It’s a kind of tribal game in many ways. And that’s fine for the communities of Castleford and Wakefield or Dewsbury.
“But to achieve a wider cut through you need international competition. It’s the catalyst to getting people interested in the sport that don’t have that in-depth passion for it and just a passing interest.
“International sport delivers that. In truth the biggest international match-up is England v Australia across all sports. You might argue football has England v Germany, but fundamentally it’s England v Australia so there is absolutely room for growth internationally.
“The challenge, that we all know, is you’ve got probably three – some people would argue not even that – contenders for the competition and then nations that are not of the same skill, competence level or depth.
“This sport in particular is very unforgiving of mismatches. They are not particularly edifying spectacles so the International Federation has to find a way of getting that depth from three to six. That’s the challenge going forward.”
In relation to that, Wood hopes the profits from this World Cup, which should amount to around £4m, will be used wisely to help the likes of Scotland, Italy and the USA – who all produced heroic efforts – take crucial further steps in their development towards 2017.
But, first he looks back on a tournament that exceeded even the RFL’s own expectations.
“I knew how hard everyone had worked before a ball was kicked to make sure all the fundamentals were right,” he explained.
“We thought we’d given ourselves the best chance of delivering but there was still a couple of risk factors right up to day one.
“We needed the England team to turn up and perform and be credible as that had the capacity to blow us off course.
“The scheduling of games week one was deliberate to try and make sure that by the time we’d got the first round away there was a positive momentum about the tournament. If you like, it then feeds itself rather than having to work as hard, but we needed that.
“It all came together but seeing some of the traditional older grounds full to bursting was great.
“People stood at Workington behind the posts where they are not allowed normally – trying to find places to stand – and similarly Rochdale, who had never had as large a crowd for rugby league, while to see the Shay full too was all good.
“The one example that was jaw-droppingly different was to be sold out at Huddersfield (England v Ireland). If you’d have said before the tournament that’s going to be the first to sell out you’d have thought ‘Flipping heck. There is something stirring here.’
“Obviously that hadn’t happened before so that was a real piece of hard, incontrovertible evidence that something was very different and in only the second Saturday too.
“With France, too, I was over in Avignon and I think that match was fuller than the game was even licensed for.
“You could sense it was all good and there was a lot of positivity. It just kept building.”
On those hopes of resurrecting the Lions tour to Australia, meanwhile, Wood added: “I’m very hopeful we can do that.
“We just need to have confirmation from the Australian Rugby League who will be principal hosts.
“But I’ve been in discussions with my counterparts for a lot of the last couple of weeks and there is an appetite.”