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A league of their own | Rugby League World Cup

  • Cairns and Darwin to host major sport event for the first time
  • Perth building a new multi-purpose stadium, but it won’t be ready in time for the tournament
  • 'Newbie' hosts hoping to attract a National Rugby League team

The Rugby League World Cup may date back more than 60 years, but when Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea host the event later this year, the tournament will represent a number of firsts.

The inclusion of Papua New Guinea as a host for the first time will guarantee a party of unprecedented scale in the country, where rugby league is considered a national institution.

However, even within Australia, Darwin, Cairns and Perth will host Rugby League World Cup matches for the first time.

It is a sign of greater optimism surrounding a tournament that, until recent years, has been staged sporadically. At times, it has also struggled to capture the imagination – even in hotbeds for the sport – considering the lack of strength in depth outside the traditional powers of Australia, England and New Zealand.

In 2000 an expansion of the event to 16 teams heralded some dispiriting blowouts – most notably Australia’s 110-4 win over Russia in front of just 3,000 spectators at Hull.

However, following an eight-year hiatus, Australia staged a streamlined 10-team tournament in 2008, before England hosted an expanded 14-team event five years later.

“International rugby league had been neglected for some time,” says Andrew Hill (pictured), chief executive of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. “The 2013 tournament signalled a changing of the guard and the Rugby Football League (in England) hosted a wonderful World Cup that has set the bar for us.”

Experience

Australia has plenty of experience in hosting major sporting events. The competitive nature of the local marketplace with Australian rules football, cricket, football, rugby union and rugby league vying for fans and dollars ensures that standards are high. “We have a unique sporting culture,” Hill says. “Aussies love their sport and are good at it. Our broadcasting partners are the best in the world and that drives a certain level of excellence from all of us.”

Those broadcasts will be beaming rugby league content, the organisers say, to more than 110 markets and an audience of over 20 million. There is a projected total of between 10 to 15,000 overseas visitors heading down under to generate a total attendance of about 500,000.

For hosts that are new to the tournament, it is a chance to brand themselves internationally.

Cairns, a city of around 140,000 in the far north of Queensland, is excited about the tournament. “The biggest impact for us is that it highlights that a regional city has the capacity to put an event like this on,” Cairns Mayor Bob Manning says. “We regard ourselves as a city that knows how to plan a major event and how to get the best out of it and how to get the maximum coverage.”

According to Manning, the city has plenty to offer fans and the tournament – not least, one of the natural wonders of the world. “We have the Great Barrier Reef here,” he adds. “Our marketing and communications people will make sure that people know that the World Cup games are being played ‘on’ the Great Barrier Reef. Fans can come here for a great holiday and also enjoy the World Cup.”

While Cairns is new to the event, the state of Queensland is not, with Brisbane down the coast set to host the final. Darwin, however, has the distinction of representing an entirely new part of Australia, the Northern Territory, a massive but relatively sparsely populated region of about 250,000 people. “For people in Darwin and Northern Territory it is probably the first major sport to bring such a big event on a global stage,” Hill says.

In short, it is a very big deal for the region, and there is another upside to its involvement.

Darwin will only host one game but it could be one to remember. Should Australia’s team, known as the Kangaroos, emerge as expected at the top of a group containing England, France and Lebanon, a quarter-final at Darwin Stadium would await. “It is a major coup,” Hill says.

Promotional opportunity

The time was right to get involved, according to Andrew Hopper, general manager and director, Northern Territory Major Events Company. “This is an important international tournament and we wanted to be part of it,” he says. “It is an opportunity to promote Darwin and the Northern Territory. We are looking at this from an event tourism perspective. We have great support from the authorities here and we can do great things. We’ve got an expectation that thousands of visitors will come from interstate and overseas.”

The plan is to show that Darwin is a place for businesses, as well as tourists.

“Some serious businesses are based here,” Hopper adds. “international companies and investment happens here. We have great capabilities.”

Perth, the metropolitan capital of Western Australia, is perhaps better known on the international circuit, although the lack of a modern multi-purpose stadium has prevented the city from hosting in the past, according to Gwyn Dolphin, chief executive of Tourism Western Australia. “That is why Perth struggled to get some of the big events, but that is going to change,” he says.

The city’s nib Stadium will host a double-header consisting of a match between two European qualifiers, followed by England taking on France. Further down the line, a new 60,000-capacity venue will be ready by the end of this year. English Premier League football club Chelsea will visit in 2018 and in 2019 Perth will host a game from the State of Origin series – a major three-game rugby league showdown between New South Wales and Queensland. “The World Cup is part of a strategy to show that we are ready to host the big events going forward,” Dolphin says.

Tourism markets

It will also help Perth promote itself to its core tourism markets of Europe and primarily the UK. “From an exposure point of view, this event puts Perth on the map as a global player,” adds Dolphin. “Our most important market is the UK and it takes place at a time when the weather is getting warmer here and colder there.” The city expects 2,500 overseas visitors. “It puts a couple of million dollars into the local economy.”

It is not just about the five-week tournament, but something more long lasting. “An organising committee has two responsibilities,” Hill says. “The first is to put on a sporting event to do the sport justice and promote the sport. We also have a responsibility to grow the game and to choose matches for Perth, Cairns and Darwin especially. It is great to bring the game to those places and leave a legacy.”

None of the three ‘newbies’ are home to a professional National Rugby League (NRL) team, but the coming tournament could help to change all that.

”There is no doubt that the NRL has talked about trying to grow the game nationally,” Hopper says. “This event will showcase the sport and provide the opportunity to create more interest and awareness in Darwin and the Northern Territory.”

“There have been discussions in the past between the NRL and Sydney and West Australia about having a pro team,” Dolphin says. “They are looking to expand and are looking strategically around cycles of broadcasting deals as to where would be the best place. It would be great if that happened here, and would be an excellent by-product of hosting the tournament. The World Cup helps to build that base.”

EXTRA: Growing the game

National Rugby League (NRL) authorities are trying to find a way of satisfying the sport’s hotbeds, such as Queensland and New South Wales, whilst attempting to take the game to new parts of Australia.

In 2018 Melbourne – a bastion of Australian rules football – will host one of the three State of Origin games between New South Wales and Queensland, and Perth will do the same the following year.

“We saw Melbourne embrace State of Origin in 2015 and we expect Perth to do the same in 2019,” NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg says. “By then Perth will have a state-of-the-art facility that will be a fitting new venue for the biggest sporting event in the country.”

There is some disquiet in Queensland that it will host just one of the three State of Origin games in 2018 and 2019, but if it grows the game around the country, all will benefit.

Brisbane was delighted to be given the final. Officials believe that the World Cup final is better from a tourism and hotel perspective than the State of Origin, which sees many tickets bought by fans within relatively easy travelling distance

Queensland’s State Tourism and Major Events Minister, Kate Jones, adds: “This is a major coup for the state and will focus the attention of millions of rugby league fans on Queensland. The games at Suncorp [Stadium] are expected to sell out, attracting tens of thousands of interstate and international visitors and generating up to 120,000 visitor nights for Queensland. The World Cup’s biggest games (will) drive visitation, support jobs and foster pride in our state.”

The final should help Brisbane’s objective of hosting the 2019 NRL Grand Final while Sydney’s ANZ Stadium is being renovated.

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