RLWC 2021 has just announced the schedule of matches for the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments in England late next year. And it included several potential mismatches, such as Australia-Scotland at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry on October 29, England-France the next day at Bolton Stadium and New Zealand-Jamaica later that evening at Headingley.
Previous World Cups included contrived “super pools” that included top seeds, ensuring headline matches at the round robin stage.
“This is the 16th staging of the tournament – it feels like the tournament has to take that step towards maturity,” said CEO Dutton.
“If you look at the rugby union World Cup, one of the things they’ve had to grapple with – no doubt – has been some one-sided games. We partnered with the netball World Cup last year and you look at some of the shorelines in that tournament.
“Will there be some uneven games? Yes there will. Let’s be realistic about that. Is the right thing to do to start to move towards maturing the tournament? Absolutely. We are huge advocates of that.”
Dutton indicated that “super pools” from which more teams progress lacked credibility in the eyes of many general sports fans.
“You’ve got to remember, we’ve got to explain this beyond the core rugby league community,” he said. “In 2013, explaining a 14-team tournament to the non-core, even with the super pools, was really hard.
“We’ve got four groups of four, the top two in each go through, that’s wholly explainable and it will form a part of our marketing strategy.
“What we’ll then find is we’ll have a very strong set of quarter-finals and I think the quarter-finals is the benchmark of the health and wellbeing of a tournament.”
Dutton was also asked about the continuing uncertainty linked to the global pandemic and whether the World Cup was in any doubt.
“We’ve had to look at options to push the tournament back,” he admitted. “We’ve ultimately had to look at what the cost to the public purse might be to cancel the tournament.
“They great thing is that the government here in the UK are fully supporting us. Of course we have to be agile to anything that might happen – a second wave, vaccine, all of those other things.
“But for the time being, we’ve got a great degree of confidence. We’re going on sale in December. We’ve done an incredible amount of research on consumer confidence. We just have to work with what we’ve got. We can’t control the environment. We’ll just have to adapt.
“At the moment, if nothing changes, I think we’ve got the perfect opportunity for rugby league to adapt.”
Dutton was asked during a media virtual Q&A whether rugby league seemed “a smaller sport today” with Toronto Wolfpack withdrawing from the rest of the Super League and Challenge Cup seasons.
“Do I think the credibility of the tournament has been damaged by Toronto? No I don’t.
“Obviously it’s disappointing news for the sport as a whole. I think there’s probably plenty of water to flow under the bridge with that.
“But we’ve got to not forget we are a tournament. We’re a global tournament and we’ve just got to stay focused on that and celebrating and promoting and reaching new people.
“This tournament will succeed by servicing the rugby league core community, by having a tremendous broadcast offer here in the UK and by reaching a tremendous audience globally but also we have to reach new fans.”