This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Click here to read the 2021 edition.

The year 2020 will go down in history for so many different reasons. For sports fans, it will be remembered as the year that leagues were nulled and voided, clubs lost their existence and international tournaments were postponed. For most, the experience of watching a sporting event inside a full-capacity stadium remains a distant memory. After a year of disruption, the attention now turns to 2021, and in particular, the Rugby League World Cup which will be held in England. Here, UCFB’s Ryan Booth looks at how the tournament can help shape the future of the sport in the UK...

After fighting off competition from both the United Arab Emirates and the USA and Canada, the Rugby Football League (RFL) was awarded the rights to host the 2021 instalment of the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC). For those not associated with the sport, this might seem insignificant, but for rugby league officials, players and supporters alike it’s a chance to build on the success of the 2013 tournament – of which England was a co-host – and propel the game on to the global stage.

Whilst rugby league originates from northern England, it possesses a strong desire to grow outside of its traditional heartlands, something which is reflected through the creation of its premier club competition, the Betfred Super League. This can also be seen in the formation of clubs located around the world, such as Catalans Dragons, Toulouse Olympique, Toronto Wolfpack, Ottawa Aces and a potential New York franchise.

The sport’s desire to grow is undoubted; one of the semi-finals at the World Cup is set to be held at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, and will be the first non-football match to be staged at the venue. The showpiece final will take place at Manchester United’s Old Trafford, the venue for the annual Super League Grand Final.

Describing the desired legacy of the upcoming tournament, an RFL/RLWC2021 spokesperson told Future Sport: “Bold and brave are the two words that RLWC have identified as epitomising their approach throughout, and certainly, taking a semi-final to the Emirates Stadium fits that template.”

They added: “RLWC2021 is proud of the northern focus of the tournament, celebrating the North of England, but there is also a rich tradition of big rugby league matches being played in other parts of the country and especially London, most obviously the Challenge Cup Final. It is significant that since tickets were made available in a public ballot in November 2020, more applications came from London postcodes than from any other city. Overall, RLWC2021 provides a huge opportunity.”

Manchester United's Old Trafford will host the 2021 Rugby League World Cup Final.

Josh Jones, a current Great Britain international and delegate on Global Institute of Sport’s MSc Sports Directorship programme, shares this passion to help the sport develop, and believes the tournament can play an instrumental part in increasing the sport’s popularity around London, in particular.

“I think it’s massive,” Jones told Future Sport. “Because of COVID, a lot of people are missing sport and are longing to get back into that environment. I think it’s a huge opportunity for the tournament to be one of the biggest sporting competitions in 2021.”

The back-rower added: “Growing up I remember my step-dad taking me to Euro 2004, and seeing how Adidas and Nike created such a special atmosphere and culture within the city, not just within the games, but around the stadiums with all the people. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to do that. As a player I’d love to play in one of the big stadiums in London, and I think to be in our capital city, for a Rugby League World Cup, is a huge statement.”

GIS delegate and Great Britain international Josh Jones wants RLWC2021 to emulate the successful UEFA Euro 2004.

Despite its ambitions to progress, rugby league has long been ridiculed and stereotyped because of its northern, working-class roots. The game is widely known as an “M62 sport” due to the location of its member clubs. Aside from the London Broncos, there hasn’t been a top-flight club based south of Sheffield in England.

One man who is quick to provide an explanation for this is UCFB academic, and Warrington Wolves supporter, Greg Nixon.

“Rugby league is a very insular sport and, in some instances, very short-sighted in its outlook,” admits Nixon. “You almost get the feeling that the sport is happy to be perceived as a minority sport that is largely ignored by the mainstream media. The finger of blame has to be pointed at the clubs, as for some of them, there is the concern that expansion might mean less money in the collective pot.”

This suggestion is supported by the demise of transatlantic side Toronto who, following the outbreak of COVID-19, were forced to withdraw from Super League, due to “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges”, before seven clubs voted against readmitting Toronto into the competition for 2021.

While the decline of the Wolfpack is unfortunate, it has indeed opened the doors for clubs closer to home. Rob Butland, Co-Founder and Director of Development at Cornish Rebels RLFC, told us about his ambitions and why the Rebels are the perfect solution for Super League.

He said: “After Newcastle (Thunder), Cornwall is the next most realistic and desirable option to facilitate a Super League franchise. Yes, it's a county and not a city but it has an audience who love rugby, the location to appeal to travelling fans, and most importantly it has the Cornish Rebels who will play in a top class facility, Sportva Kernow (Stadium for Cornwall).”

The Rebels have been plying their trade in the South West Premier League since their inception in 2013, and have big plans to grow the sport themselves in a traditional union county.

Butland added: “Our intention is to enter League One (the third tier of the RFL system) in the coming seasons and we have no interest in stopping there. We have, we believe, a sustainable plan which will provide local audiences with the thrill of rugby league in one of the most enviable locations in the UK.”

Although the likes of the Rebels are making great strides in taking the sport to new audiences, its future heavily relies on the success of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, as Nixon explains.

“Rugby League has never been afraid to push the boundaries forward and again it is breaking new ground by having the women’s and wheelchair tournaments alongside the men’s, which should improve the sport’s media profile. If the organisers get their marketing strategy right, then there is no reason why the tournament can’t have an influence on the growth of the sport in this country.”

He concluded: “The whole of the media has to be on board if the tournament is to have any lasting legacy, so it is vital that England not only have a good tournament, but that they win it. Once again, though, the RFL has to have the courage of its convictions and ensure any momentum gained by the tournament is not lost.”