The World Cup and the Coronavirus

Garry Schofield wonders whether it is realistic to plan for full houses for next year’s Rugby League World Cup.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Jon Dutton.

The Rugby League World Cup chief executive is promising the biggest and best ever tournament, and I sincerely hope he can deliver the shot in the arm our great game so badly needs.

But unfortunately, he’s relying on other people being able to deliver another kind of shot in the arm, in the form of an effective coronavirus vaccine.

Until that comes along, it’s hard to see how the World Cup can take place in the way it needs to in order to be a success in terms of organisation, finance and promoting the game.

That’s why I think Mr Dutton and his team should take a firm decision now and put the tournament back to 2022.

As I suggested last week, the possibility of a year’s delay could well have been a factor in giving England coach Shaun Wane a twelve-month contract extension before he has taken charge of a match.

And when ticket prices were recently announced, there was confirmation that a potential postponement of the World Cup has been thought about.

There are 21 different venues being used for the three tournaments – men’s, women’s and wheelchair.

While the majority are in the game’s heartlands, those venues stretch from Newcastle and Middlesbrough in the North (and what a shame it is that Cumbria dropped off the list) to Coventry in the Midlands and London further South.

England’s men are due to play group games in Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield, and hopefully knockout matches in Hull, London and Manchester.

That means a supporter wanting to watch the national team in every match (and there will be plenty) could be travelling in and out of six places.

There will be 15 other sets of fans criss-crossing the country for men’s matches and eight for women’s, while the wheelchair tournament, also involving eight teams, takes in arenas in Liverpool, London and Sheffield, all of them indoor, so bringing another set of challenges if social distancing is still a feature of our lives, which it could well be.

I really want all three tournaments to be a big success, and it would be great to see a World Cup which tells the rest of the sporting world what a great and inclusive product we have.

But existing fans are crucial to that success, and surely we have to be in a situation where we can get as close to possible to filling grounds (and it’s good to see Mr Dutton has taken a sensible approach to ticket pricing for that very reason).

As we’ve seen from the NRL and Super League, it’s hard enough to keep players and coaching staff in a biosecurity bubble, never mind fans.

It’s been reported that next year’s British and Irish Lions rugby union tour of South African might not go ahead if fans are not allowed to attend owing to coronavirus restrictions, because it wouldn’t be commercially viable.

We are in the same situation, reliant not just on people from this country being able to attend, and having the confidence to do it, but also on those from overseas, whose presence adds an extra dimension, and vital income, to the World Cup.

Without the fans, is the World Cup really worth it?

As we stand, there is no guarantee that in terms of the pandemic, we will be in a significantly better position in 14 months’ time, when England are due to kick-off the tournament by taking on Samoa at St James’ Park on the afternoon of Saturday, October 23, 2021, with holders Australia versus Fiji at the KCOM Stadium that evening.

I realise putting it back a year would mean an overlap with football’s World Cup in Qatar, but it would only be by a week, and I reckon it’s something we could work around.

By making a decision to postpone now, it gives everyone – organisers, players, coaches and fans – clarity and time to prepare for 2022.

Herbie’s progress
Well done to Shaun Wane for his willingness to broaden horizons and put his faith in youth by adding young back Herbie Farnworth as well as the more experienced forward Morgan Knowles to his England elite training squad.

I wrote about Herbie’s impressive progress at Brisbane Broncos a couple of weeks ago, and I loved his response to Shaun’s call-up when he said: “The main goal is to represent your country, and that has always been a dream of mine.”

As Shaun said, there’s plenty of work ahead for the versatile 20-year-old, who grew up in Blacko, a village on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border between Burnley and Skipton and played for amateur clubs Wigan St Pats and Newton Storm before entering Brisbane’s development system after a couple of successful stints Down Under with Burleigh Bears.

But he’s got a foot in the door, and now he has an additional incentive to keep working hard. And if my suggestion of postponing the World Cup is taken up, he’ll have an additional year to develop.

He looks a great prospect, and let’s give him credit for having the confidence and determination to head to Australia at such a young age and take the opportunities that have been given to him by the Broncos and, before that, their feeder club Norths Devils.

There are no guarantees, but I’m sure of one thing – if Herbie had signed for an English club, he’d still be trying to emerge from the so-called development system, which smothers rather than promotes young talent.

I see Shaun is still suggesting a game between England and an Exiles team is on the cards, but I still think that would be a gimmick, and a waste of time.

It’s been tried before and wasn’t really a success.

Far better a series of three between England Probables and Possibles.

It would appeal more to fans, it would be more beneficial to Shaun because it would maximise the number of players he could get a close-up look at and it would provide the players with a real reason to perform.

Surprising loan
I was a little surprised to see Innes Senior being loaned by Huddersfield to Wakefield.

I know Trinity have problems with injuries and a suspension and will be happy to have him on board for a month, but he’s a promising player who should be getting the chance to continue developing in his own team.

He’ll give his all for Wakefield I’m sure. But as a Huddersfield lad who has come through the club’s youth system, I suspect he’d be happier running out in claret and gold.

I hope when he returns to the Giants, coach Simon Woolford gives him a chance.

Regan’s stock rising
They say money talks, but even though he’s a proud Welshman who grew up with rugby union, that’s the only reason I could see for Regan Grace swapping codes.

With that superb hat-trick for St Helens against Leeds underlining just what a great player he is, there have been suggestions of interest from both Australia and the 15-a-side code.

Moving to the NRL I could well understand, but having got used to playing league and getting great service from his Saints team-mates, I reckon Regan would be bored out of his head after a few games of union, because he’d see far less of the ball.

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