The Rugby League World Cup defied the sceptics and proved a success both on and off the field. Peter Smith reports.
THE WORLD Cup restored rugby league’s self-esteem and there was a defining moment when the event came to life.
In the second half of game four – between New Zealand and Samoa at Warrington – the world’s best player did what most of the 15,000 sell-out crowd were there to see.
Sonny Bill Williams displayed pace and power to blast through the Samoa defence with a trademark run, but then the script went out of the window: Sonny Bill slipped and put a foot over the dead ball line before he could touch down.
The try was ruled out and what had up to that point been an entertaining encounter was transformed into an “I was there match”.
In that moment, as 15,000 fans chanted ‘who are you’ to the Kiwi powerhouse, doubts about whether the tournament would really take hold were swept away.
The fans made the tournament. In a rebuke to the accepted wisdom that rugby league supporters aren’t interested in the international games, they flocked to matches – some between unlikely teams – in their thousands.
Rugby union internationals attract full houses not due to the quality of action on show, but because they are an event. Rugby league’s World Cup had an element of that, culminating in a 67,000 gate at the Wembley semi-final double-header and Test record 74,468 sell out for the final at Old Trafford a week later.
The semi-final and final swelled the average to around 16,000.
There were eight full houses and ground records tumbled. Attendances just into five figures may be small fry in some sports, but for rugby league to attract 8,872 to Rochdale to see Fiji face Ireland or a turnout of 10,544 at Leigh, where Tonga played Cook Islands, was unprecedented.
Competitive ticket pricing paid off, as did the decision to involve local authorities in the marketing of games. The players were accessible and there was an emphasis on fun – the post-game laps of honour were an inspired idea.
Outside the heartlands, more than 7,000 turned up at Bristol – hundreds of miles away from the nearest Super League club – for the clash between USA and Cook Islands.
Workington and Halifax drew the sort of crowds not seen there for decades and even at Headingley, the 18,180 who watched New Zealand’s showdown with Papua New Guinea was better than all but one of Leeds Rhinos’ home Super League attendances this year.
Clearly many of those attending matches were either first-timers or lapsed supporters and the challenge for the game now – especially clubs like Leigh, Rochdale, Halifax and Workington – is to entice them back.
Unfortunately it could be a couple of years before England play another meaningful match in this country, so the momentum may be lost.
The rugby league public have proved they want international matches, now something has to be done to ensure they get them, on a regular basis.
While the make-up of the final – and in fact the last four – was predictable, some of the so-called lesser nations made impressive strides. The USA, whose players paid their own way to the tournament, were a revelation, reaching the quarter-finals and attracting some media attention back home.
Italy – another side made up largely of ex-pats – beat England in a warm-up game and were competitive throughout the group stages, while Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Cook Islands all proved they have something to offer at Test level.
But there will be no legacy if these nations don’t play another meaningful match until the 2017 World Cup.
It is time for rugby league’s international administrators to grasp the nettle and lay down a long-term programme.
Other issues were highlighted, including the different rules used between the international and domestic games.
For example, the Aussies and Kiwis are used to playing with two referees in the NRL, but international rules permit one; similarly after a year of Super League players getting used to the free-play, this was not in force during the World Cup.
There was the usual wrangling about player eligibility, but the rules as applied made for a better tournament.
The USA and Italy could have fielded squads full of home-grown players, but they’d have been heavily beaten and what good would that have done? Their challenge is to bring more nationals up to the required standard.
Minor quibbles though. The entertainment provided by both the big-three and the smaller nations was generally of a very high standard.
The format for the group stage worked, ensuring most matches were close and competitive, though it did lead to some one-sided quarter-finals. The best two teams reached the final, but most of the other nations fully contributed. The spirit shown by the Scots – and Tongans, Fijians, Americans and others – will be a lasting memory from a tournament which, perhaps uniquely for rugby league, can be hailed as an unqualified success.