Time on Rugby League World Cup’s side as it strives to offer optimism

AMID all the current uncertainty, Jon Dutton, the chief executive of the Rugby League World Cup 2021, retains a firm belief that – “should we get the opportunity” – it will host the biggest and best tournament yet.

HOLDERS: Australia pose with the trophy after winning the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Picture:: Gregg Porteous/NRL Imagery/PA
HOLDERS: Australia pose with the trophy after winning the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Picture:: Gregg Porteous/NRL Imagery/PA

Yesterday marked 500 days to the start of the competition which is due to kick-off with England v Samoa at Newcastle’s St James’ Park next October.

Coinciding with that milestone figure, organisers revealed where each of the 32 sides from 21 different nations would be based, with Leeds hosting six teams – more than any other – and York welcoming another four, including the New Zealand men’s squad.

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Dutton had made bold predictions for the success of the tournament but it is a sign of the decimating effect of coronavirus that he and his team now have to add that aforementioned caveat.

“We’re very confident that, should we get the opportunity, we will stage the biggest, best-ever Rugby League World Cup,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“I’m absolutely unequivocal about that. The situation now, of course, is so uncertain; what we might have been confident about before, Covid has come and taken some of that confidence away.

“But we remain being utterly positive and it’s important we have moments like this (500 days). Next month we’ve the full scheduling and that really brings things to life when we go on sale; all of a sudden it’s very real.

“We are as confident as we can be that the tournament will go ahead as planned and, should it not, it will be something environmentally that comes and stops us rather than any lack of enthusiasm or passion from our team.”

HOPEFUL: Rugby League World Cup chief executive, Jon Dutton. Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

As much as Dutton has to consider that worst-case scenario, there is nothing to suggest that will occur.

Granted, the loss of this autumn’s Ashes home series between England and Australia owing to the knock-on effect of Covid-19, is a blow given how important it was to be in whetting the nation’s appetite for rugby league.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether England will now have a game of any sort before the competition begins. Nevertheless, it merely creates another challenge that Dutton and his diligent, creative side are meeting head on.

“Losing the Ashes was understandable and everyone felt a sense of inevitability,” he said.

BITTER PILL: England's Sam Burgess speaks to his team after losing to Australia in the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup at the Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane . Picture: Grant Trouvilles/NRL Imagery/PA

“It was disappointing as we wanted to use that as an opportunity to show what rugby league is to a non-rugby league fan.

“We have to find a different way of doing that now. International rugby league is played infrequently and that is one of the massive challenges to be able to market tournaments. But there are some great narratives and stories. Hopefully now, with people knowing where all the nations will be based next year, we can look at ‘adopt a team’. We know many people will support England but, for example, in Doncaster, the community getting behind Samoa, or in St Helens the community getting behind Tonga, it does give us a point of difference and something for people to get excited about.”

Lockdown and the global pandemic was partly one of the reasons behind the tournament’s new branding, which was also revealed yesterday.

The new Cup symbol is built from red, orange and yellow ribbons representing the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments respectively.

Celebrating the Power of Together, it focuses on human interest stories and emotional connections, with the goal of connecting with a universal audience.

“The current circumstances have definitely affected – probably in a positive way – our approach to hopefully trying to bring people together,” added Dutton. “That’s definitely what we want to see more than anything at the moment. We’re really pleased with our new identity; it’s in keeping with the current circumstances with the power of together and there’s been some really good reactions to it.”

Ticket sales were supposed to go on sale in the summer but that has been pushed back.

“Fixtures will be published on July 21st and tickets go on presale in September,” Dutton confirmed.

“We had a lot of things agreed and signed off but we’re going to take a second look at pricing and just make sure we make it as affordable and accessible (given Covid) with peoples’ disposable income. We’ll keep reviewing everything but also not forget this is a mega, global tournament.”

Considering the virus’s impact on the current Super League season – there have been no games since mid-March and it is unlikely to resume until August – there could be a knock-on effect for the start and finish times of the domestic competition in 2021.

However, Dutton insisted that will not impact on the World Cup schedule.

He said: “We’re very understanding of player welfare and the players getting their rest period at the end of the season.

“But we’ll work hand in hand with the RFL, Super League and the NRL to just try and work as collaboratively as possible.

“It’s very, very difficult to re-engineer any of that.”

Looking ahead, he added: “We’ve still got time on our side.

“Who knows if there will be a second wave or a vaccine? So we just have to be agile but also positive.

“We need to give people hope and optimism and it’s never more important than now. Hopefully today is a small part of that.”

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