4th January 2021, 11:50 | therfl

2021 – a year of opportunity for International Rugby League

2021 – a year of opportunity for International Rugby League

By Ralph Rimmer, RFL CEO

In wishing Happy New Year to Rugby League people everywhere, it’s right that we reflect on the trials, tribulations and too many tragic losses of 2020. But first, I want to look forward – to a year when we are determined at the RFL to be relentless in our support of International Rugby League.

Our home World Cup takes on even greater significance. RLWC2021 is the nation’s biggest celebration of international sport. A huge opportunity to showcase Rugby League to the country and the world, and to invite sports fans and event-goers to join the Rugby League community in a shared experience; getting behind our outstanding England Men, England Women, and England Wheelchair RL players - and the exciting new England Lions PDRL team - and welcoming so many other nations to England.

The Sports Minister has consistently referenced RLWC2021 as ‘something for the whole country to look forward to’. He’s absolutely right - and it’s never been so important for families and friends to have a calendar of events to get excited about. After an incredibly stressful period for our sport, its communities and the nation, this event will give us a chance to celebrate.

RLWC2021 has been made possible by £25m Government support, £10m of which is already helping to improve and grow our sport’s grassroots facilities with grants large and small.

Every £1 invested is matched by additional funding – an amplifying effect which is genuinely transformative.

Already over £10m has been invested in creating more welcoming and inclusive environments in which to play Rugby League. From Warrington to Wath Brow, from Stanningley to Shevington, and not forgetting the further growth of Wheelchair RL through the funding of chairs and other equipment for teams from Hull to Wakefield - supporting new players who may be our England stars of the future.

In 2020, International Rugby League took a back seat, for obvious and unavoidable reasons. We had to cancel an Ashes series which we’d all been anticipating with such relish – not least Shaun Wane! – and there was similar frustration for our Women and Wheelchair squads.

The work to deliver a full International calendar for fans across the world, and realise the potential shown by the 2013 and 2017 World Cups, is the responsibility of all IRL members - and must be our shared focus in this World Cup year. Now, more than ever, it requires our energy and focus as it should be seen as the keystone which globally unites our sport and promotes its opportunity to grow more than any other platform.

Reflecting on 2020, it’s been a year where we’ve had to look closer to home. Rugby League takes its responsibility to its communities seriously - in so many ways, it’s more than a sport. Rugby League rolls up its sleeves and gets on with caring for people, sharing with others; campaigning, and standing up for communities that are often left behind.

Rugby League’s social impact has been in evidence throughout the ongoing Covid crisis. The addition to the Rugby League Dividend Report, with a foreword from Judith Cummins MP (Chair, the All Party Group on RL) captures some of the incredible ways that clubs large and small, Foundations, the sport’s charities, and selfless individuals provided and continue to provide much needed practical help, encouragement and care to thousands of people.

This determination, and the difference it makes, was recognised and praised throughout 2020 by MPs, Ministers and the sport’s Patron, the Duke of Sussex. 

Everyone in the sport has seen Rob Burrow MBE as the embodiment of courage, determination and selflessness – and now, through the support of both the BBC and Sky as well as the print media, the wider world does too. Rob and his family are the very best of Rugby League - as are Kevin Sinfield MBE and all the players, coaches, volunteers and fans who have raised so much money for and awareness of MND.

The In Memoriam compilation, initially to share with December’s virtual meeting of the Rugby Football League Council and then posted on our website over the Christmas period, was a poignant reminder of the number of Rugby League people we lost in 2020, to Covid-19 and other causes – and even since that was produced, others have passed who have played key roles in the game, such as the Barrow stalwart Raymond Wallace, the former Workington chairman Kevan Gorge, and two legends of the Community game in Rocky Whitehead and Jocky Wilson. The Blackbrook club are also mourning the loss of Jordan Welsby, a talented young player. On behalf of the RFL, my deep condolences to the many families and friends who have endured such pain.

As the new year begins, and we start to look forward to the return of all levels of Rugby League in the Spring, we also acknowledge that the challenges haven’t ended with the old year. The long tail of this period of economic and social shock and disruption caused by Covid-19 (and the prior disruption within the sport itself) will extend for several years.

Arguably, the pandemic has accelerated a number of inevitable issues and questions in the sport. As in 2020, we intend to meet these challenges head-on with energy and invention coupled with the continuing support of the Government. This close partnership has been a very positive outcome from 2020. 

This presents an opportunity now to set new ambitions for how we look, how we work with all as part of a solution. As we have all seen with public health announcements, projecting too far into the future in fast-changing conditions can quickly make any plans obsolete. However we are focused on shared opportunity, rebuilding, and reshaping; and continuing to ensure that our sport remains recognised as fundamental to our communities and the national sporting landscape. There is now an opportunity to be bolder and more visionary – to meet the scale of the challenge and the opportunity - together.