How the World Cup format was created

Martyn Sadler
Martyn Sadler

MARTYN SADLER explains his input into the format of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

Ah well, if I don’t blow my own trumpet, then no one else will.

On the website forum, a thread has been opened praising the format of the World Cup, and hailing whoever thought of it as “a genius”.

When praise of that order is being handed out, who wouldn’t want to take some of the credit? In fact the person who first put the idea of the current World Cup format into the minds of the organisers was me.

Looking back at my email record, I sent an email to RFL CEO Nigel Wood on 27 August 2009, after he had asked for my advice about the World Cup, as follows:

On the World Cup, just a couple of thoughts:

Pools A and B, four nations in each, selected from Australia, England, NZ, PNG, France, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, with three to qualify from each group, would give some very competitive matches.
Pools C and D, four nations in each, selected from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Lebanon, Russia, USA, Jamaica, Serbia, South Africa, Cook Islands (8 from 10), with one to qualify from each pool, would also give some competitive games, enabling us to avoid walkovers like Australia v Russia, and it would give the Home Nations the chance to win some games and build up momentum.
I think it will be very important to attract entries from a wide geographical area. Given the licence system we have adopted for Super League, I wonder about a licence system for selecting World Cup nations, judging them on potential strength and any other criteria we might think relevant (potential support, domestic competitions, etc).
In my view, if we don’t get countries like Russia and even Lebanon into the next tournament, they will switch to the other code, and I think their presence here would add a hell of a lot.  To start with, the presence of the Lebanese would almost automatically ensure that the tournament would be covered by Al Jazeera in the Middle East, and it would give us unprecedented coverage in that region.
You mentioned a cost figure of £250,000 per competing nation, but, with the time we have available, I would be amazed if we couldn’t generate sufficient revenue to make a massive profit with the structure I have suggested.
I then had a meeting with Nigel on 21 September 2009, at which he said that the maximum number of teams in the World Cup would probably be 12. He thought the RLIF would be reluctant to go above that figure.
I emailed him again the day after that meeting:
Good to meet yesterday for what I thought was a very good discussion.
It struck me afterwards that the biggest problem facing the 2013 World Cup is what happened in 2000. We shouldn’t go for 16 clubs because that’s what we did in 2000 and it didn’t work too well.
As we know, there are several reasons why it didn’t work well, and we don’t need to go over them again.
But I’m confident that the RFL is in an infinitely stronger position as an organisation than it was back then. And the gist of my argument is that if we stick to 12 nations the tournament will probably be an Australasian and British Isles competition, whereas with 16 teams it can become a genuine World Cup, with teams from all the continents. The sales pitch to sponsors, the media and the fans will be much easier in the latter case.
The opportunity is too good to be missed.

I’m glad to say the RLIF went with more than 12, but not 16, which I still think would have been a better option, particularly if the Lebanese team could have been included.

Looking at my original email I see that I suggested that Tonga, rather than Ireland, should be in the leading two groups. Last night’s game at Rochdale demonstrated that the Irish are probably over-matched at this level. It’s also interesting to see that at the time Italy were not on the horizon.

The really key thing, though, is that those discussions were taking place in 2009, giving lots of time to prepare for the tournament, which is crucial to its success.

Rugby League rarely plans four years ahead.

We can now see what happens when it does.

MARTYN SADLER is the editor of LEAGUE EXPRESS, for which he writes a weekly ‘Talking Rugby League’ column.