It may still be three years away but I’m looking forward to the 2013 Rugby League World Cup with great anticipation. It will be the first to be held in this country since the ill-fated 2000 tournament provided us with the longest hangover in international Rugby League history. As such, it is an opportunity to lay a few ghosts to rest.
The omens do not appear to be good, however, if the following comment from Richard Lewis, Deputy Chair of the Rugby League International Federation and Chairman of the Rugby Football League is anything to go by.
“The 2000 event was a major setback for the sport. Matches were played where it was difficult to attract a crowd. We’re confident we can get it right for 2013. Our approach will be different and we will play to our strengths by staging a lot of our matches in the game’s traditional heartlands.”
There seems to be a bit of a contradiction going on here. The International Federation have also announced that fourteen teams will take part in 2013. That’s four more than the last World Cup in Australia in 2008. So if the international game is growing to the extent that it is necessary to increase the numbers of teams participating, why such an apparent lack of confidence in the sport’s ability to put bums on seats outside ‘traditional heartlands’ in England?
It’s that hangover from 2000 again. Of course it’s right that the RFL, as the organisers in 2013, would want to make sure that their tournament is a success, but they won’t automatically do that by hiding the next World Cup away from the rest of the country and playing too many games in its own backyard.
It is interesting to look at what happened in 2000. The biggest crowd outside the final for any game in the tournament was the opener between England and Australia at Twickenham. The biggest crowd of any of the quarter-finals not involving England was in Watford. Wales played a group game in Cardiff in front of a Welsh record home crowd of 17,612 yet their semi final against Australia in Huddersfield – the birthplace of Rugby League – drew just 8,114. Australia drew a bigger crowd for a group game in Gateshead than they managed in Hull. England played in front of just 5,736 fans in St Helens.
Crowds were poor across the board and in some cases, worse in traditional Rugby League areas than they were further afield. That’s because the tournament was a badly organised shambles from start to finish, played in horrendous weather conditions and with a ticketing operation that couldn’t sell tickets to those who wanted them let alone anyone else. It didn’t help that England put in some dreadful performances on the field either. It made a crippling financial loss, but it wasn’t simply a matter of geography. While we can’t afford to repeat such a loss in 2013, nor should we let the mistakes made in 2000 cripple Rugby League’s ambition any longer.
A World Cup should be an all-encompassing celebration. The biggest matches need to be played in the biggest venues. The whole country should be involved. The way to put bums on seats is not just to serve up ‘more of the same’ to those of us who already live in areas with a Rugby League stadium nearby and expect capacity crowds to turn up. That policy didn’t work in Australia in 2008, and it won’t work here in 2013.
I’m not suggesting that all the games should be staged in far flung places willy-nilly, but at the very least, I’m hoping we’ll see an announcement soon that the opening match and the final will be staged in London, either at Wembley or the new Olympic Stadium. That’ll do for starters.
Page XIII Editorial – First published in Rugby League World Issue 348 (April 2010)