WITH all sport on hold, Super League and NRL suspended, the Euros postponed and the Olympics in grave doubt – we have to have something to look forward to.

Next year’s Rugby League World Cup – in which St Helens is not only a host, but it will be staging three group games.

The St Helens Star's Mike Critchley caught up with Jon Dutton - Chief Executive of the Rugby League World Cup 2021 - to get an update on the timescale of announcements and the tournament goals.

MC: You could not have launched the tournament any better than that draw?

JD: It was an exceptional day for the tournament and the sport of rugby league.

The opportunity to be at Buckingham Palace with Prince Harry, who is very much in the spotlight.

But to do something quite sensational in terms of putting the sport on the map, setting out the scale of our ambition and what we are trying to do.

We have to reflect on the fact that this is the tournament’s first public draw – so we go from nothing to Buckingham Palace and the spotlight of the world is on the tournament.

St Helens Star:

MC: It rippled into parts you would not have dreamt of reaching. Does that tie in with some of your strategic goals for this tournament?

JD: Yes it does. From the start we have been very ambitious and bold and brave.

We took the opportunity to really make the most of all the media attention and make sure rugby league was on the front page of national newspapers and on the television news – delivering our message.

This is going to be a fantastic celebration it is much more than the games that will be staged in St Helens. Hopefully, this will have a positive impact on people’s lives with tentacles far and wide into other communities.

St Helens Star:

MC: In terms of the host towns have they done all they can do now?

JD: No, not at all – I can’t speak highly enough of the club St Helens and the local authority who have put together such a compelling bid that is why St Helens has such a big part to play in this tournament. It is the same with many more local authorities.

What they can do now is to continue to raise awareness of this tournament, tell them the World Cup is coming and be ambassadors for the sport of rugby league.

We want people at the end of the domestic season in 2021 to have something really special to look forward to in the first three weeks of the tournament in St Helens.

St Helens Star:

MC: Last time St Helens staged a World Cup game in but did not host a team. What are the positive impacts that actually hosting a team can have on the town?

JD: The ability to have a team based in the town, visiting schools and having open access training sessions and being part of the local community for what will be the best of a month at the start of a tournament will have a significant impact. That is something everyone can look forward to.

Rugby league players are very genuine and those travelling to England for October 2021 will want to feel part of the community.

MC: Some teams are very much in demand for what they bring. Who decides who fits where?

JD: It is complicated, and some teams are incredibly popular – Tonga being one of those. We have to look at where the games are being held, so there are geographical considerations. We will listen the towns and cities and if there are any natural links, any twinning or heritage links will be taken into consideration.

For us it is about the optimum choice about how we ensure the venue is full three times over in St Helens and the same in Doncaster, Leigh and Warrington.

If that is done by selecting nation A over nation B then of course we will take that into consideration.

MC: If a town was hosting a team would it follow that they would have all three group fixtures?

JD: We will be rolling an ‘adopt a nation’ so our research shows most people want to watch England, but we want people to adopt a second nation top get behind.

We reckon hosts will have probably stage two rather than all of that team’s group fixtures. That is for logistical, geographical and broadcast reasons.

It also gives a chance for those stadia that are hosting three games, like St Helens, to get to see multiple nations.

St Helens Star:

MC: What extra duties are placed on nations with regards to community work?

JD: To get behind our legacy programme and interact with the community programme. We have launched our mental fitness charter and each team will have a part to play.

We also have a volunteer programme with local people in St Helens being the volunteers with the team and looking after them and having a big schools programme.

We are looking to invest into capital facilities and we know that St Helens are looking to prepare a number of bids across that.

Clubs are in receipt of our capital money to make sure they feel part of the tournament.

St Helens Star:

MC: What is the short-term economic benefit that hosting a team and three World Cup fixtures?

JD: It will have an economic impact undoubtedly. The Rugby League have commissioned independent studies that place the economic value of hosting three World Cup group matches at between £2.4m and £4.5m.

However, what we are trying to deliver is a social impact and benefit which for me far outweighs the economic one.

That is about making a positive impact on people’s lives, giving them something to look forward to and as you saw at the World Club game it was a great occasion for the town of St Helens.

We want to do that on a global international scale.

We want St Helens – with its huge amount of civic pride and a name synonymous with rugby league - to really get behind this tournament and get excited. We have 20 months to look forward to it.

If you look at the nations – Jamaica here for a first time, and Greece which is an incredible story of a team that has not been able to play home games because rugby league is not allowed in the country.

And yet they have still qualified for the tournament. And then the vibrancy of the Pacific nations, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Cook Islands – they are players and nations we get to see infrequently so that is what it is extra special.

MC: To achieve the goals set out in your list of objectives you will have to sell the game beyond the traditional rugby league regulars?

JD: We will not succeed in this World Cup by just reaching the rugby league community.

We have done a lot of research and there are not enough people in the core rugby league community to sell the tickets that we need to sell.

What we need to do is two things. One, is to make the core rugby league community feel special and a critical part of and make it something they can celebrate and enjoy.

But it is also about reaching a new audience. We have to do that as the cricket world cup did and the athletics world championships and the Rugby Union world Cup when it was here.

We have to reach a new audience – and it exists. That is the audience of event-goers people who will spend disposable income on an experience and in the middle of that is the quite wonderful game of rugby league.

We have to work very hard to deliver that and that is very critical to our success.

MC: You see that with the Winter Olympics when floating viewers become curling fans overnight, or bob down to Liverpool when the Netball World Cup is on.

JD: We partnered with Netball last year as part of a knowledge transfer and I spent five days there and saw the audience. It was full of people who were drawn to Liverpool as a destination but also a sports event.

Many were already netball fans, but certainly not all of them and that is a really good example.

MC: Is there any further lobbying hosts can do to attract a certain nation or is that out of their hands now?

JD: Any noise we welcome with open arms, the more people want to talk about the tournament the better, but we are 95 per cent there in terms of making our decisions.

We won’t please everyone, but people will be pretty happy with the decisions we have made and the logic behind them.

Obviously, there is a strong affection for Tonga and everyone wants them. We have got some spectacular Pacific nations.

Warrington hosted Samoa in 2013, we had the Cook Islands at Leigh in 2013 and they were based there in Leigh and Wigan. That brings vibrancy and something a little bit special.

Especially when they come to match days and see the haka, the war dances and the hymn that Fiji will sing. They are special moments that people will take away.

This interview was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Europe.