Nigel Wood, tournament director for RLWC2013 and CEO of RFL, on the opportunity presented to the sport ahead of the Rugby League World Cup, and the balancing act required to get the venue location just right.
2013 represents a very important year for rugby league in the country with the World Cup coming to England, how are preparations going?
It’s an exceptionally important year and we’ve had a great domestic season with really high standards of play, plus a captivating Grand Final this weekend with Wigan vs Warrington. All eyes are now moving onto the World Cup which starts next weekend. The teams have named their squads so it’s a very exciting time and we can’t wait to get started!
As with Union, New Zealand and Australia are the big favourites for this year’s competition – what do you think of England’s chances?
It’s certainly our hope and expectation that England can perform well with home advantage. The coaching team have been unequivocal that this is the best prepared side that we have ever produced and we’ve recruited players from all parts of the rugby league-playing world where they have been eligible to play for England.
Ahead of the competition they have been together in camps all through the year. It’s all been part of an overall four-year programme since the last World Cup in Australia and we’re absolutely convinced that we’ve left no stone unturned in order to evaluate what we need to do to succeed.
Obviously there’s no guarantee of success in a competition as ruthless and brutal as rugby league - and our opponents will be exceptional - but that’s not to say that we don’t have special players ourselves. We’re going into this competition with every chance of winning it.
You’ve gone big with your opening game plans, a double header under a closed roof featuring England v Australia and Wales v Italy, are you showing your whole hand early or is there more to come?
The opening ceremony and double header will be a fantastic and appropriate way to start a competition of this magnitude. The pairing of England vs Australia as a contest is the biggest match-up across world sport, let alone just in rugby league. Rugby league has a proud history of putting on great sport productions and we’re determined to put on the best show rugby league has ever put on, with the biggest game that rugby league has ever put on.
Then of course, straight after that is Wales vs Italy so it promises to be an incredible day under the closed roof in Cardiff. It’s only one result of a group stage but all four teams on the pitch will want to get their competition off to a good start! Then, of course, there is definitely more to come…
The semi finals will be played at Wembley, with the final at Old Trafford, how important was it to get the north/south divide correct?
We all recognised when we were allocating the tournament games that it was essential that an event being hosted by England and Wales needed to have games in the capital cities. Therefore, playing at Wembley was always something that was going to happen – it’s our national stadium and rugby league has a great tradition of playing there, it has done since 1929, and rugby league players and fans love going there.
In terms of the geography of the game, we have some really encouraging statistics about our fanbase as well. 27% of ticket purchases are new to the sport and that’s particularly prevalent in the South East where they are drawn to going to a magnificent venue like Wembley Stadium. London still has that “halo-effect” of the Olympic Games as well.
In the north, Old Trafford is in many ways the spiritual home of Grand Finals in rugby league. We crown our champion club there every October and the venue is immensely popular with our supporters in this part of the world, which makes for a great atmosphere.
We think we’ve found the right balance between the three big facilities – Wembley, Millennium Stadium and Old Trafford – so we shall see!
Rugby League comes across as a very close-knit community, and this is set to continue with teams taking part in various community activities during the competition – how important is this to the event?
One of the significant learning points and success stories of the competition was the process for the host cities to bid for the rights to either stage matches or training camps and provide accommodation for the tournament.
For many years, rugby league has taken big events to different parts of the country and relied on its own efforts and endeavors to make a success of those events, and what we wanted was a deeper engagement from hosts. We had a process that asked potential hosts to show us what they were prepared to commit to the event and what they could do with it.
As a result, we’ve got a team of hosts that really want a deep and extensive engagement with the teams, and all the nations understand that they have their role to play as well.
Rugby league players on the whole are very accessible and it’s important to celebrate that fact. If you want to get interviews with even the biggest and best world stars of the competition you don’t have to fight through an army of agents and managers to get a word in because they absolutely understand the need to be visible and committed to game, as well as the communities that they are staying, training or playing in. We expect that everyone will get involved wherever they are.
In a groundbreaking year for the sport, you broke over 100 years of tradition by overseeing the calendar switch from winter to summer. It all seems quite logical, why do you think no one has done it before?
Rugby league has a great track record in innovation. Playing on Sundays, television coverage back in the sixties and seventies, video technology, the use of substitutes - there is a long list of examples where rugby league has led the way.
We came to the conclusion years ago that the supporters and athletes deserved the opportunity to play in the better months. People call it summer rugby not winter rugby but to be honest, like most serious sports, it's a three season year – so it’s more about what season do we miss out – and it makes sense to avoid December, January and February as they are the months less conducive to performance and ground conditions, as well as the spectator experience.
That was our logic, and there is still some rugby league played in the previously “traditional” season in some parts of the country, but fundamentally our international and professional calendar runs from March to November. The feedback has been very positive and we feel the sport is moving in the right direction as a consequence of that.