Exactly a year before the 14th and final nation playing in the next Rugby League World Cup is known, the draw has been made the European Qualifiers in Paris, by RLIF Chairman Nigel Wood, CEO David Collier and Mohamad Habbous, president of Lebanon Rugby League, who secured their place at RLWC2017 via the Middle East Africa qualifier last weekend.
Three nations will go through from them, with the winners of Pools A and B being joined by the best second placed side after a play off.
Pool A will see top seeds Wales face Serbia and Italy.
“It’s a fantastic draw for us,” said Wales RL chairman Brian Juliff. “It’s certainly not the easiest, we have been keeping a close eye on what Serbia have been doing and have been extremely impressed with their progress. The guys will enjoy the trip to Italy but we have some unfinished business with them after they beat us in the 2013 World Cup.”
FIRL Board member Tiziano Franchini noted: “The draw gives a clear perspective for the future but it is a very tough road back to the World Cup. We have faced Serbia many times and have a close relationship with them and Wales are a very strong nation, but we have a determined focus for Italy to be back at the World Cup.
For Serbia RL Director Nebojša Sretenović, there is a terrific opportunity to build on their recent European Championship B triumph. “It would have been very hard whoever we had drawn but, importantly, we have a full year to prepare for the games,” he acknowledged. “We will do our best and are mindful that we could make history by getting to the World Cup proper for the first time.”
Pool B will comprise newcomers Spain, Russia and top seeds Ireland.
“This is a massive next step for us,” said Spain RL official Andy Pilkington. “When the games come around we will only be in our third year so this a huge test playing against full time professional and tier one and two nations.
“I was sending messages back to the boys about who we’d got in the draw and they were going nuts. It will be a really difficult trip to Russia, logistically and playing-wise, but we have overcome Latvia and Greece away and we will go there with an open mind about what we can achieve.
“The Irish will love coming to us especially as Valencia has a big ex-pat population who will rally round. This gives us a massive opportunity to develop the sport further in Spain, there is no bigger stage than a World Cup and we will get greater recognition from being part of it – we are looking for these matches to give us a further boost and profile.”
Dimity Belov, president of the ARRLK welcomed Russia’s involvement, “It is a really good draw,” he commented. “We are extremely excited to be playing both these nations, one established, the other new. It didn’t matter who we played we could not be looking forward to competing more and hopefully earning our place in the 2017 World Cup.”
Ireland are not thinking about their favourites tag according to IRL director Conor Kelly. “There is fabulous variety in the teams we play,” he said. “We go north and south and face Russia again after a while and Spain for the first time. This is great for the sport and especially for rugby league in Ireland, it will help to maintain and enhance our place on the sporting map here.”
2017 Rugby League World Cup – European Qualifying Fixtures
Round 1 – 15/16 Oct 2016: Pool A – Wales v Serbia; Pool B – Russia v Spain
Round 2 – 22/23 Oct 2016: Pool A – Serbia v Italy; Pool B – Spain v Ireland
Round 3 – 29/30 Oct 2016: Pool A – Italy v Wales; Pool B – Ireland v Russia