MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 10: (Back Row L-R) Ashton Golding of Jamaica, Dale Ferguson of Scotland, James Tedesco of Australia, Sam Tomkins of England, Junior Paulo of Samoa, Kevin Naiqama of Fiji, Nathan Brown of Italy, George King of Ireland (Front Row L-R) Elliot Kear of Wales, Jason Taumalolo of Tonga, Benjamin Garcia of France, Jessa Bromwich of New Zealand, Mitchell Moses of Lebanon, Jordan Meads of Greece, Rhyse Martin of Papua New Guinea and Brad Takairangi of Cook Islands pose for a photograph during the Rugby League World Cup 2021 Tournament Launch events at the Science and Industry Museum on October 10, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for RLWC2021)

Finally, after some obfuscating thanks to the Australian and New Zealand rugby leagues, the World Cup of 2021 will shortly begin on October 15, 2022 with England taking on Samoa at Newcastle's St James Park.

Better late than never as had seriously seemed to be the case at this time last year.

I was recently asked on ABC radio what are the main attractions of the World Cup for rugby league fans? After all, it has been a long year and the cricket has already started (a better question would be – when does cricket ever end these days? But I digress…)

Well - there are a host of reasons why it should be given the respect it deserves.

It is the second oldest of the World Cups in professional sport, having commenced in 1954, making it 68 years old as an event – only the FIFA World Cup (soccer) is older having started in Uruguay in 1930.

The very age of the World Cup gives the rugby league tournament great cachet. Most of the great players in rugby league since the end of the Second World War have competed in the World Cup competition. The brilliant duelling fullbacks of the 1950s, Australia's Clive Churchill and France's Puig-Aubert, both competed in the first World Cup tournament in 1954.

The best British players last century – the likes of Alex Murphy, Roger Millward, Eric Ashton, Vince Karalius, and Brian McTigue – all played in the World Cup.

France during its glory days of the post-War period, not yet taxed by the insidious effects of Le Protocole and mustering the available reserves following the disaster that was the rugby union-orchestrated outright ban of professional and amateur rugby league by the Vichy government in 1941, echoed the Hungarian experience of the 1954 FIFA World Cup when both teams failed to lift their own World Cups despite undoubtedly being the best rugby league and soccer sides respectively on the planet.

In soccer, Hungary had dominated all-comers in the period leading up to the FIFA World Cup of 1954, but succumbed to a tactically astute West German side in that Final (crucially Hungarian genius Ferenc Puskas was carrying an ankle injury). A similar fate awaited France in rugby league.

Having dominated Australia in successive Test series in 1951 (away) and 1952-3 (home), the French used up a lot of petrol in their hard-fought win over Australia at Nantes during the 1954 World Cup (their last pool match), leaving them vulnerable to the British in the Final.

In the end, it was Scotsman Dave Valentine who would lift the World Cup for Great Britain in the inaugural World Cup in France (Britain winning 16-12), leaving unanswered one of the great questions of French rugby league history – how would a win at the Parc de Princes in Paris in the World Cup Final of 1954 have altered the course of that history?

Arguably New Zealand's greatest-ever international rugby league result – winning the 2008 tournament – also occurred in the World Cup. Britain's World Cup wins in 1954, 1960 and 1972 remain highlights of the rugby league history of England, Wales, and Scotland – all of whom contributed players in those tournaments.

The longevity of the tournament is therefore a key part of its attraction. If you take the Rugby (Union) World Cup as an example of the more recently created World Cups (having started in 1987), many of the best rugby union players last century never even had the opportunity to play in it.

The two best players of the 20th Century in rugby union, back Gareth Edwards (Wales) and forward Colin Meads (NZ), completed their careers well before the rugby union World Cup even started.

Cricket's World Cup was never graced by players like Australia's Don Bradman and West Indian legend Garfield Sobers. Soccer's World Cup, like rugby league, has seen the best players take part – the likes of Pele, Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff all graced that tournament.

Given that the rugby league version of the World Cup will be more than 70 years old when it is played in France in 2025, the majority of the game's best players have been able to compete in it. This sort of history cannot be made up overnight but must be accumulated through aggregation over an extended period.

Another major feature of the Rugby League World Cup is that the majority of the world's current best players will be competing, in contrast to a competition such as State of Origin, which is still crippled by a lack of access to the best players in the game.

When Sam Burgess, James Graham and Sonny Bill Williams were the most damaging forwards in world rugby league, State of Origin began to lose some gloss as a consequence of their absence. Their equivalents in 2022 – the likes of Viliame Kikau and Jason Taumalolo – will play for Fiji and Tonga respectively in the World Cup, whereas the State of Origin series of 2022 was a lesser competition through their absence.

Even tweaking eligibility for State of Origin to allow players from Tier 2 nations to play both Origin and for their nation at this World Cup (which saw a host of players like Jarome Luai, Brian To'o, Junior Paulo and Josh Papali'i play Origin before all nominating for Samoa) has not seen players of the quality of Kikau and Taumalolo enter the Origin arena.

The best place to see the best players in world rugby league is in the World Cup at present, not State of Origin as Channel Nine Australia would have one believe.

Australia's extraordinary record in the rugby league version of the World Cup deserves special mention, and should attract more worldwide attention than it does.

The Kangaroos have won 73% of all tournaments contested, which compares favourably to the Brazil FIFA World Cup winning ratio of 24%, the All Blacks winning ratio of 33% in Rugby (Union) World Cups, and the highest cricket ODI World Cup winning percentage of Australia (42%). Despite this, the Kangaroos have barely played in the last five years. This World Cup represents a rare opportunity to witness one of the world's greatest sports teams in action.

Despite the focus of this article being on the Men's World Cup, the remarkable inclusivity of the rugby league World Cup is clearly demonstrated by the fact that five tournaments have been co-ordinated as part of this year's celebrations – Men, Women, Wheelchair, Physical Disability and Learning Disability.

The inclusion of women's teams from Brazil and Canada, together with the tremendous development work that is occurring in African women's rugby league in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, makes this an exciting space for the international game.

The domination of the French team in Wheelchair World Cups may well continue with that tournament to be played in London, Sheffield and Manchester, though England will be hoping to use their home-court advantage in this fast-paced, rolling form of the game.

The rare inclusivity offered at these rugby league World Cups – note the Wheelchair competition can be entered by disabled and abled athletes – is something which should be widely celebrated.

The World Cup is of course an amazing vehicle for rugby league development around the world. The iterations of the World Cup prior to the expanded 1995 tournament focussed on a tournament held only between established rugby league Test match nations – much like the cricket ODI World Cup concentrated on Test nations when it commenced in 1983.

Accordingly, rugby league's worldwide growth has really only been directly encouraged since the early- to mid-1990s, with tournaments such as the World Cup and the (now defunct) World Sevens at the forefront of that development.

In that time, the number of playing teams has sky rocketed to around 70 currently, from a low base of merely five nations (Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, France and Papua New Guinea).

This nearly exponential growth has been scarcely acknowledged in the world sports media, and it has occurred in a remarkably organic way through changing population demographics and the hard work of devotees around the world. International development of rugby league is completely hampered by a failure to work together through the umbrella of the International Rugby League (IRL) body (looking at you NRL) and a chronic deficiency in funds, yet the number of countries playing the game continues to climb towards 100.

The World Cup remains one of the most important tools for development in rugby league and should be actively supported by all rugby league fans for that reason alone.

While it has taken rugby league a long while to agree on having a World Cup organised at four-yearly intervals (this commenced in 2013, followed by 2017, and would have occurred last year had Australia and New Zealand not thrown their toys out of the pram in 2021), it is good to see that the game has recognised the need for more consistency in the staging of the event (despite the difficulties caused by COVID), by continuing to ensure the next World Cup will be played in France in 2025.

An absolute key to the historical growth of the FIFA World Cup has been the determination to play the tournament every four years – something which has occurred continuously since the tournament commenced in 1930, but for the impact of the Second World War which caused the tournaments of 1942 and 1946 to be abandoned.

Rugby league's World Cup in contrast has been marked by crazily sporadic patches of furious interest such as the 1970s (tournaments held in 1970, 1972, 1975, 1977) to episodes of almost complete disinterest (only two tournaments were played across the whole of the 1960s, in 1960 and 1968).

Locking the tournament into a regular four-year cycle encourages the growth and development of nations by giving them the ability to plan. Not knowing when the tournament will be held next, the ad-hoc approach seemingly endorsed by the NRL in 2021, is a recipe for detachment and disinterest, and more importantly, makes proper planning and preparation near impossible (especially for smaller nations with limited resources).

The World Cup is therefore a bit like Christmas, its relative rarity is part of the attraction when compared to our annual, more regular sporting fare, but it needs to be still treated with respect and always held in the established cycle which has been so painstakingly realised after many years of hard work and co-ordination.

The gradual expansion of the World Cup from five teams at the 1989-1992 World Cup to sixteen in the 2021/2 tournament has undoubtedly assisted the growth in depth at international rugby league level.

The inclusion of Jamaica and Greece in this tournament are examples of that positive growth. Only England's (sudden) interest in Dom Young as a six-foot seven wing weapon has deprived Jamaica of the benefit of both Young brothers at this World Cup (Alex will still turn out for Jamaica).

This World Cup will however represent the first appearance of a Caribbean nation. Greece has suffered a lengthy period of internal administrative problems (many of which are still experienced by developing rugby league countries), so the Hellenic appearance at the tournament is very welcome.

Both countries feature squads in which at least 25 per cent of players were born in Jamaica and Greece respectively. These are good signs for the development of the game in the Americas and continental Europe more broadly. The World Cup still represents the best opportunity to view the fruits of international development at any given time.

In all, the twenty nations competing across the finals of the three major Rugby League World Cup tournaments represent five of the world's continents, with Africa also represented in qualifying. As rugby league continues to push towards 100 nations around the world playing the game, each Rugby League World Cup will continue to be the pre-eminent competition for that sport on the planet, and these should be the best and most competitive World Cups for many years.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Why watch it?
    a) Because there is no domestic League competition at the moment
    b) Because the matches are broadcast on free-to-air TV, in the evening, our time.

    What’s that you say ? They aren’t being broadcast on FTA ? Ah well, in that case…

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