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RLWC2021 tackles fresh challenge at World Cup opener

St. James’ Park hosts the opening game of Rugby League World Cup 2021

Rugby League World Cup 2021 organisers believe they are in a “really good place” following the start of the delayed tournament at the weekend, despite being forced to apologise for technical issues that resulted in the opening ceremony being cut short.

Saturday’s opening match, which saw host nation England register a resounding 60-6 win over Samoa, kicked off almost 10 minutes late due to technical issues with the PA system at St. James’ Park, home of Premier League football club Newcastle United.

This occurred during the beginning of the opening ceremony, resulting in knock-on effects for the tournament organisers’ plans. The set from headline music act, Kaiser Chiefs, was limited to one song while other elements of the ceremony were ultimately curtailed.

However, the official tournament welcome was able to take place as former internationals Kevin Sinfield and Jason Robinson brought out the men’s trophy, Rugby Football League (RFL) president Clare Balding and local resident Fareeha Usman delivered the women’s trophy, while ambassador James Simpson and Newcastle Rugby Foundation head Mel Magee carried the wheelchair trophy.

Before kick-off, former England international Rob Burrow, who has motor neurone disease, was also given a warm reception as chief guest. The disruption to the opening ceremony ultimately resulted in a rather flat atmosphere during the game’s initial exchanges, with 43,119 in attendance at a St. James’ Park stadium whose top tier of the Milburn Stand was left empty.

An official statement from the organisers read: “RLWC2021 would like to sincerely apologise for the disrupted Tournament Welcome, which was severely affected by technical failure. It wasn’t the start we wanted but we would like to thank fans for their patience and for continuing to celebrate the teams and the tournament.”

Saturday’s second game, defending champion Australia’s 42-8 win over Fiji, drew an attendance of 13,366 at Headingley, home of Super League club Leeds Rhinos. Commenting on the turnout for the opening two games, Rugby League World Cup 2021 chief executive, Jon Dutton, said: “It was a really strong first day attendance and we understand that there were more people inside the stadium from the North East than any other region of England.

“I think that says a lot about tournaments, that they can attract new spectators. People came, had a great time and saw a great performance and it really does set us up now for the next 59 games. To start so strongly puts us in a really good place and we will move forward with great confidence throughout the tournament.”

The opening ceremony issues reflected the latest challenge that organisers had to overcome for a tournament that kicked off a year later than planned. England was originally awarded hosting rights to the 2021 World Cup in October 2016, seeing off competition from the United States and Canada.

A landmark tournament featuring the women’s and wheelchair events running alongside the men’s World Cup for the first time was dealt with significant logistical challenges to overcome due to COVID-19.

Rugby League World Cup 2021 was postponed in August last year, little over two months before it was originally due to commence. Organisers and the UK Government announced the decision just weeks after leading nations Australia and New Zealand said they would not participate due to concerns over COVID-19.

After new dates were confirmed later that month, RLWC2021 was then forced into venue changes in November 2021 due to stadia originally planned to be involved becoming unavailable.

Reflecting on Saturday’s events, Dutton added: “It was disappointing, unfortunate and a one in a million-chance occurrence.

“It’s one of those uncontrollable things we have to move on from and at least we got a chance to celebrate Rob, welcome Kevin and Jason, Fareeha, Clare, James and Mel. The stadium looked great with our big trophies and we focus on what’s ahead now and make sure that we can continually improve the customer experience as we go.”

On the back of the World Cup opener, Super League yesterday (Sunday) confirmed that its Magic Weekend will return to St. James’ Park on June 3-4 next year. Newcastle will host the event, which sees a full round of fixtures played at one venue, for a record seventh time having staged the past two editions.