2025 World Cup litmus test for International Rugby League

15 Aug 21, 4:12PM 0 Comments

Written by Keith Whitelock

Photo by Getty Images

While perhaps a little strange to be talking about the 2025 Rugby League World Cup when the sport wasn’t able to hold the 2021 World Cup on time, the staging of two tournaments in three years could help to truly cement the Rugby League World Cup brand.

Making things even more intriguing is the fact that France has been given preferred bidder status as the International Rugby League (IRL) sought out France to host, not the other way round. Whilst being the nation that created the World Cup way back in 1954, France has only ever been a standalone host one other time, in 1972.

The 1972 tournament was also the last time Great Britain won the trophy, drawing 10-10 with an Australian team led by Graham Langlands. With scores still locked after 20 minutes of extra time, Captain Clive Sulivan lifted the trophy based on a superior position on the points table. Despite Stade de Gerland in Lyon holding 45,000 people, only 4,200 turned out for the final, as the French public lost interest in a final without French participation.

The game is almost certainly set to stage the World Cup in France for a third time 2025. Government backing both logistically and fiscally will be critical to the event’s success or failure. Long term international rugby league fans notice there’s a real difference in budget and professionalism of the now 2022 Rugby League World Cup, thanks primarily to Chief Executive John Dutton and his team along with huge financial backing by the British government. Sure, the skeptical fan can see this backing was in partial to court the vote of the working class in the north, or “Workington Man” as they’ve been referred to but the sport will forever be grateful for the more than £25 million provided by the government to help make the tournament a success.

In a recent feature interview with international rugby league podcast Chasing Kangaroos, IRL Chairman Troy Grant explained how we got to France being the preferred host of the 2025 World Cup.

“I came out of the board meeting we had in Perth in February 2020 and there was no host but a target date of August 2020 to announce the 2025 host. I took note of it so I used that time to get around and talk to a number of nations through my connections when I was in politics through the Consul General call,” Grant explained.

“When I first met the Rabbitohs with Blake Solly, Shane Richardson and Wayne Bennett, three of them, who have all had experience in the northern hemisphere said one of your priorities needs to be France. ‘You’ve got to rebuild France to make sure that England has another strong nation up there and France can then help other nations in Europe. The English can help other nations in the UK to grow and raise the competition levels there, similar to what’s happened in the Pacific’. So I took that to heart and organised a meeting with the French Consul General in Australia, asked Wayne Bennett to go with me, which is when we made a pitch. I thought about what would be the pitch; the World Cup for rugby (union) there in ’23, Olympics in ’24 so let’s have a trifecta of World Cups by having the rugby league world cup there in ’25.”

With a background in politics, Grant knows that a tournament like the Rugby League World Cup is not likely to succeed without government backing.

“Anne Bouillon, the Consul-General of France to Australia has been great and given us some guidance so I didn’t want to overstep my mark either but as we went through the Covid year, nothing was done in the former management of the IRL about it. August came and went and I said ‘well this is ridiculous’. I took a proposition to the board about France and why France and they supported it.”

Grant also knows the importance of cohesion between the IRL and local rugby league governing body the FFR XIII, headed by energetic 54-year-old Chairman Luc Lacoste.

“I reached out to the French XIII Federation because we can’t do this on our own and Luc Lacoste, who was fairly recent in the chair who was great. He’s already doing a stellar job and he’s picked up the ball and ran with it. Every bit of success we’ve had since has been all Luc, my concept but his work.”

In a further step forward for the games international pathways, a youth World Cup is also set to be introduced. This is especially important to developing nations outside of Australia, New Zealand and England as young players get the chance to represent their nation at a World Cup before hopefully going on to represent the senior team four years later.

Financial support from the IRL will be crucial in the success of this, and the next two World Cups are the main method the governing body can raise the funds to provide these grants.

The youth World Cup is set to join the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair World Cups, with Disability Rugby League also set to be a big focus, an area the French government are keen to see prosper.

Whilst it’s unlikely the current French Government will be thinking back to the second world war, students of international rugby league may see the French government backing as an olive branch for the injustices suffered under the Vichy government. During this time, the government of Philippe Pétain associated rugby league with the previous socialist government. Rugby Union, with a much stronger relationship with the then government, are said to have labelled rugby league as a “corrupter” of youth and successfully lobbied for all of rugby leagues funds, grounds and equipment to be confiscated and given to rugby union, a decision which rugby league in France is yet to recover from as the game has not returned to its pre-war heights.

It’s important the sport of rugby league grows outside of its usual heartlands. Whilst very promising strides have been made in the Pacific, the islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa only have a combined combination of just over one million people. With a population of 67 million, staging a successful World Cup in France presents the real litmus test for international rugby league.

“We’re hoping for an indication from the French government around about October about their appetite, willingness and interest in hosting the World Cup in ’25 so fingers crossed, toes crossed, everything crossed because I just think on the back of ’22, France ’25 could be amazing” Grant stated.

Whichever way the decision goes, the next five years will prove to be perhaps the most important years for international rugby league in many generations. If done right, it could also be the leg up the sport needed to realise its potential on a more global platform.

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