A Q&A with Rugby League World Cup chief Jon Dutton

Matthew Shaw caught up with RLWC2021 Chief Executive Jon Dutton last week, when he was in Halifax for a grant presentation to the Ovenden club that will be used to fund a redeveloped clubhouse.
Here the World Cup boss gives us an update on his organisation’s planning for the World Cup.

MS: We’re starting to see tangible results of the £10 million funding now. How does that make you feel?

JD: It’s hugely satisfying. The sport this year is 125 years old and will continue to flourish way after the World Cup finals have been staged. Projects like this are here in the long-term. It took us some time convincing the government to give us this type of funding and setting up the foundations for success, but now we’re seeing big projects like this that will make a transformational different at a strong community like this in Halifax, which will then be a pipeline of talent for the whole of the sport. This is one of 60 grants we’ve awarded so far; we’ll award over 200 grants that will make a massive difference. This is all possible because we’re hosting the World Cup and it’s very satisfying to see it become real. We are asking clubs to bring partnership funding to the table, so that every pound we spend, another pound is brought in, so the investment isn’t £10m, it’s £20m.

MS: The repercussions from this should be very positive for the wider game, should they not?

JD: Huge. We want to try and reach every community club in some shape or form. That might be through funding or volunteer projects like the mental charter we launched last week. It’s about bringing the sport coming together, being proud of the showcase and, as we showed at Buckingham Palace last week, having the sport in the spotlight at its very best.

MS: Could you believe your luck with everything that transpired in the week leading up to the draw with the Duke of Sussex?

JD: Two things. It didn’t change anything we were going to do anywhere. Clearly, the events of the week before significantly enhanced the media spotlight. What I would say is we made the most of that and optimised that opportunity. But from the Mental Fitness Charter, filming with the Duke beforehand, flying athletes around the world, children on site who had played Rugby League, we were delivering that anyway. We had some challenging moments in the months leading up to secure the Duke and Buckingham Palace. It was really important for us that the Duke made a commitment as patron of the sport, which was fantastic, but it was important to us to showcase what we’re trying to do and the global nature of it.

MS: Are there any other plans for Prince Harry and the World Cup?

JD: He was very, very clear that he’d love to continue on our journey and we’d love for him to present one of the trophies at the end of the tournament but something in between. Last week, the easy thing we could have done was just to come and draw the balls out, but we didn’t do that. He met the children, met the nations and launched the Mental Health Charter. He was incredibly engaged and compelled about the stories the nations he had to tell, so I’m very confident that we will see more of him.

MS: At the World Cup Final at Old Trafford?

JD: I’m very hopeful of that. Last week, he genuinely enjoyed what he did in the face of intense media speculation about his own private life. It was a chance for him to do what he enjoys doing, being relaxed and meeting people.

MS: How do you continue to make the most of that publicity and ensure it remains in the spotlight from now until that first game at St James’ Park?

JD: I think just to keep building on the foundations we have at every single level. There’s no silver bullet that will sell 750,000 tickets and deliver a successful tournament. Community events like today will play their part, but it’s about exciting the core Rugby League supporters, so we have the schedule to release and details on ticket sales. We want people to come and have a great experience; the only way we can do that is with a brilliant team working incredibly hard and with meticulous planning.

MS: When can we expect the full schedule, with dates and venues?

JD: We’ll go on sale In July. The way we’ll do that is with a pre-sale. We’ll release details shortly, but we want to reward the Rugby League family first, so they will be the first people that have opportunities to buy tickets. That will be followed by a ballot in October, followed by a general sale in 2021. Some of the things we’ll do over the coming months include some work with broadcast partners as well as work with towns and cities hosting the event. All of them are interested in who they’re hosting and what fixtures they’ll host.

MS: Have you still got to work out the full schedule?

JD: We’ve got a good idea, but it’s working it out now. Having 61 games in 21 venues is clearly a complicated piece of work. But we’ve got a good idea and in the next few weeks we will tell people exactly how we’ll reveal the schedule and when. We want to build the excitement to the schedule release and then to the ticket sales.

MS: Have you decided where each country will be based?

JD: We’ve a good idea. What is really helpful is the geography we have. If you think back to the last World Cup, nobody really had a base camp as they moved on game to game, but we can pretty much say each country will be based in one place and stay there as the geography isn’t as diverse. We’re being bombarded with requests with allegiances to a particular nation and we want to help them deliver that.

MS: On England, there’s a lot of talk around Wayne Bennett. How important is it to your plans that England have a good Ashes series?

JD: The Ashes series, full stop, is really important to us. You have two of the best three nations in a Test series and we can point to people that are not the core spectators and say this is international Rugby League at its best and in 12 months’ time you can see this in cities and towns across cities.

MS: You mentioned TV. We know BBC are the main partners, what else can you elaborate on?

JD: We have lots of enquiries. The international rights are a collaboration between International Rugby League and us. We will be going overseas shortly doing some visits which will help us stimulate the market. But there’s a lot of interest and our commitment is that absolutely that anyone in the world will be able to watch the World Cup. It’s never been done before, but it’s an absolute minimum standard. It might be a blend of domestic or lineal broadcast or OTT digital broadcasts. We’re excited about that. We’re still understanding the numbers from last week but they were remarkable, as significant as you’d see on a terrestrial channel across all of our programmes.