A defining moment for the future of Rugby League

Upfront: The League Express opinion – Mon 26th July 2021

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, said Oscar Wilde.

And while it’s very hard to imagine anything in the World Cup worse than the holders and one of the other strongest sides not taking part, at least Thursday’s announcement by Australia and New Zealand that they were withdrawing due to “player welfare and safety concerns” has catapulted the tournament, which is scheduled to start on October 23 and for the first time, combine men’s, women’s and wheelchair sections, firmly onto the national sports agenda.

Now the unenviable task for Jon Dutton, who cannot possibly have imagined what was coming his way when he was appointed RL World Cup 2021 chief executive back in August 2017, is to decide how best to progress the tournament, and keep it in the spotlight, albeit for more positive reasons.

There is a school of thought that it should be moved to 2022 in the hope that the problems posed by the pandemic have eased sufficiently to persuade the Aussies and Kiwis to come to the UK or remove their excuse for not doing so.

For it’s hard not to think that this is a defining moment for the future of not just international Rugby League, but the game itself, a chance to underline that however big and successful the NRL might be, on the global stage, what happens outside it is just as important as what happens inside it.

But how easy, and how expensive, would it be to reschedule for next year, when there are already plenty of other sporting events, not least football’s World Cup, taking place? Would the £25m of UK government funding, so crucial if the tournament is to be, as Mr Dutton has pledged, the best-ever, still be available in its entirety? And would Australia and New Zealand attend next year?

Should it go ahead in the Autumn, just how worthwhile would a tournament without two of the top contenders be?
With the NRL taking a tough line, would there be a knock-on effect on the likes of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga, who draw so many players from that competition.

And would it be viable to replace the Kangaroos and Kiwis with the Indigenous All Stars and a Maori team respectively?

As you would expect, there is plenty of water still to flow under this particular bridge.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.