The phrase “one step forwards, two steps back” has been uttered so often in rugby league it could double up as an unofficial slogan. But last week, of all weeks, for the game’s followers it felt hard not to be let down by the direction of a sport that has so much potential on the field, but a frustrating lack of progression off it.
For the second consecutive time, the Rugby League World Cup is facing an existential crisis. If the decision to push the 2021 event back to last autumn was understandable due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this latest setback is much tougher to take.
France’s hosting of the tournament in 2025 was viewed as a seminal moment for an international game, breaking the cycle of World Cups alternating between England and Australia and suggesting that someone, somewhere could step out of the shadows and propel the sport into a new era.
Initially awarded to the USA and Canada in 2016 before that bid collapsed with more answers than questions, those involved disappeared without an explanation about what happened. Now France have cited financial pressures from its government for withdrawing as hosts.
That means yet again – barely two years out from its scheduled kick-off – rugby league’s most prestigious international tournament is in tatters. What happens now? A rushed process to find a replacement, with four countries stepping forward: New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and – surprisingly – Qatar.
There is already talk of stripping back the tournament just to get it staged. The reality is that without government support, major international rugby league tournaments are financially unviable. So how do things change?
“Those involved have got to radically change the business model,” said the chief executive of last year’s World Cup, Jon Dutton. “It’s got to fundamentally change long term, focus on reducing costs in certain areas and increasing opportunities for others. We need a coherent international calendar to build momentum towards a World Cup, too.”
Growth for international rugby also has to come outside of the World Cup. The International Rugby League has consistently promised a long-term calendar but that is yet to materialise.
There is a lack of buy-in from powerbrokers the Australian Rugby League Commission towards the international game and without that, the sport on a global scale is stumped, given how most southern hemisphere players play in the NRL.
“There is a bit of an international power struggle,” the former Great Britain wing Brian Carney said. “This will not be an opportunity that the Australian Rugby League Commission will miss up on taking and maximising. They want to be seen as the predominant governing body in the world of rugby league.”
But what of the next steps for the World Cup? A move to 2026 seems likely to give the next host nation the chance to get ready from a standing start. New Zealand are the favourites but it is Qatar’s bid that jumps out.
There is a distinct lack of finance within international rugby league, making the Gulf state an attractive option. But the country’s human rights track record is less appealing for a sport that will endeavour to run women’s and wheelchair World Cups alongside the men’s event, a concept that worked well last year.
“The objections and issues that surrounded [last year’s] Fifa World Cup, they remain there,” says the RFL’s chair, Simon Johnson, who will have a vote on who will host. “We’re proud of our women’s and wheelchair tournaments. There’s also no history of rugby league in Qatar. What are they doing to make this part of a coherent international strategy?”
Dutton shares similar concerns. “Did Qatar do enough in terms of promoting human rights issues and some of the issues that are pertinent in the world today during the Fifa World Cup? It’s not all about finance when you consider opportunities for a World Cup.”
But finance is the key issue for any international plans. After all, it is why France have withdrawn and it is why despite teams from nations such as Jamaica and Greece telling great stories in last year’s World Cup, there is precious little growth at grassroots level in those countries. “The sport requires a global buy-in,” Dutton said.
“It needs strong leadership and perhaps this is a reset moment for the international game to shake things up. Those in charge have to stimulate new markets because the pandemic has changed the way we work as a sport.”
A decision on France’s replacement is expected by July. But it seems that unless things change outside of the World Cup, it is entirely possible rugby league could find itself in this situation all over again in the years ahead.