The Rugby League World Cup has announced new dates for the tournament in 2022, kicking off on the 15th of October and ending on the 19th of November. The opening match is still destined to be held at Newcastle’s St James’ Park, whilst the double-header finals will stay at Old Trafford.
The dates have been shifted earlier, so as not to clash with the FIFA World Cup beginning in late November. Super League has also agreed to finish its season earlier, and England fans will be hoping for greater scheduling assistance in 2022.
Whilst details are light, the hope is that the season will be shorter, without as many onerous loop fixtures. A standalone international weekend, with sufficient time between the Grand Final and World Cup start, would do wonders for Shaun Wane’s preparations.
It is hoped that, providing the NRL agree to release their players this time around, the year-long delay affords a chance to reimagine the tournament, relocate some fixtures and build an even greater tournament.
Australasian Rugby League Intransigence
Negotiations now shift to the NRL, and International Rugby League (IRL) must convince them to shift their domestic calendar. The Australasians pulled out owing to the effects of World Cup participation on February pre-season fixtures. The IRL now needs to work to ensure the NRL finishes on time for the World Cup, requiring an earlier start to the season.
Organizers would also do well to secure more assured guarantees from the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand pulled out of the tournament, despite signing a participation agreement, demonstrating the dubious strength of RLWC’s documentation.
Whilst it is hoped that Covid disruption will have receded by autumn 2022, there are no guarantees. New Zealand is still intent on its ‘elimination’ strategy, whilst Queensland has plans to operate rural quarantine facilities from March next year. These are not signals of jurisdictions ready to ‘live with Covid’ as the UK is.
IRL and the Rugby League World Cup need to receive cast-iron, legally binding agreements to turn up, with the threat of financial penalties and sporting sanctions if they pull out again. Otherwise, history risks repeating itself, and the turf war for global rugby league governance shifts further towards the NRL.
Fresh Start: New Venues
Chief executive Jon Dutton announced the retention of St James’ Park and Old Trafford. It is expected that the new, full 2022 itinerary will be revealed in November. Resecuring arenas shouldn’t be an issue. There is enough time to act in accordance with other tenants and stakeholders to mitigate any potential scheduling conflicts.
The extra time also provides an opportunity. The press release issued talks of the RLWC’s desire to be the “biggest and best.” Part of that should involve switching some fixtures to new venues around the country. There is pre-existing data from ticket sales as to which games and stadiums were popular, and which were not.
Doncaster, Warrington, St Helens, Leigh, Newcastle’s Kingston Park, and Headingley all host three men’s fixtures. This represents market saturation and perhaps drives some relocation.
Government stipulation for the £25 million funding necessitates 80% of fixtures in the ‘Northern Powerhback ouse’. But the only men’s fixtures outside of the north were in Coventry and London. Four further Rugby League World Cup fixtures could go further south whilst meeting the threshold.
The new home of London Broncos at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is an obvious choice. Capitalizing on the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (to assist Coventry’s development) could utilize the Alexander Stadium. Games could also be taken to other northern cities. Preston, Widnes, Bradford and Wigan all spring to mind.
The clarification of North Wales as part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ allows for some games to be taken to Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground. That is if the RLWC is willing to relax England’s exclusive hosting rights under the circumstances.
World Cup Inclusivity: Deeds not Words
One of the most positive social aspects of this World Cup was the message of equality. Tournament organizers purported to treat the women’s and wheelchair tournaments, with large venues and equal participation fees. But with double-headers at repetitive locations, some of the thinking does seem a tad conservative, even inconsequentially burdensome.
There are currently six double-header women’s fixtures, and these games deserve their own individual recognition. Encouraging other bidders would create more revenue streams and increase relative demand through greater local scarcity.
This year delay is a chance to ‘think bigger’. Wales can lobby for their wheelchair fixtures to be moved to the Eirias Events Centre, part of the Colwyn Bay facility hosting a resurgent North Wales Crusaders.
Opportunity in Adversity
Whilst postponement was the last thing anyone wanted, it does afford some opportunities. Providing guaranteed Australasian participation, the twelve-month hiatus allows for fine-tweaking and locative reconfiguration.
Rugby league is a sport that continues to miss opportunities, but this tournament feels different. The hope is that the stellar work done thus far can be continued for an even greater Rugby League World Cup.
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