Rugby League World Cup: what we learned from the three finals | Rugby league

1) Three into one does go

Those of us skeptical about playing the women’s and wheelchair World Cups at the same time as the men’s tournament have been proven wrong. It worked perfectly, with a game most nights to keep fanatics and TV executives happy. However, France 2025 intends to double the size of the women’s and wheelchair tournaments, which means an extra 16 games in each. That will require them all to start at the same time and be played over a month. Even if most men’s games remain at weekends, and matches are spread over a vastly larger geographic area, schedulers will find it extremely challenging to give the other tournaments the same airtime and media space that nourished them this time.

2) Manchester needs to be central to the league finals

The centralizing of staff at the Etihad campus suggests the Rugby Football League are committed to Manchester long-term – and so they should be. Emptying out of Manchester Central after the joyous wheelchair final into the bedlam of Peter Street on a Friday night was a reminder of how rugby league needs to grow its presence in this vibrant flourishing city. Hundreds of fans were dotted throughout the dozens of hotels and bars; Manchester’s smallest pub was rammed with raucous Palau Broncos on Friday night; and Piccadilly Station was heaving on Saturday night with supporters. Combining a city center event with a major final to create a weekend of action worked a treat. Playing the Wheelchair Super League Grand Final the night before the men’s game every October seems like a logical step.

3) Wheelchair rugby league is the modern game

IMG landed a buy one, get two free deal when it became British rugby league’s new marketing partner. Women’s and wheelchair rugby league are products they can package up and sell to the places that have previously shunned the men’s game. The court, music and lights at Manchester Central made Friday night’s wheelchair final feel like an NBA game, something far more 21st century than most rugby league experiences. The huge queues for merchandise proved there is demand for international rugby league whatever the format, and fans’ chants in an almost-full purpose-built arena provided a fitting atmosphere.

The victorious teams pose on the pitch at Old Trafford. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

4) The wheelchair game could reinvigorate the running game

Wheelchair rugby league – and maybe the women’s game – could be a gateway to the men’s game given the hundreds of thousands of TV viewers who tuned in, with an average of nearly 500,000 per match on the BBC. IMG should explore the viability and marketability of an indoor modified running game – touch, presumably – in double-headers with wheelchair matches on the vinyl court, along the lines of Rugby X.

5) Tom Coyd is one of the coaches of the year

England do not win many World Cups with coaches who are in their 20s. When I put this to Coyd, the coach of England’s wheelchair side, he unsurprisingly reacted humbly and paid tribute to his father, Martin, who he said spent “every spare moment of the last 12 years working towards this”, obsessing over the team and sport for hours every night after work. It paid off.

6) The epic England v France rivalry needs feeding

We know the next internationals England’s men and women are playing are against France at Warrington in April, but surely the two greats of the wheelchair game need to lock wheels again soon? The last three wheelchair World Cup finals between the pair have been tight affairs. The last time they met, in June, the teams scored 110 points between them. The TV figures are concrete evidence: we want more.

7) The Jillaroos are doing what the Kangaroos did in 1982

Australia’s women have now won 16 consecutive matches, stretching over six years and at least two iterations of this team. Their dominance is reminiscent of the Kangaroos team that arrived in the UK in 1982 and blew everyone away, changing the dynamics of the sport forever. “Rugby league is all about pressure – how you handle it and how you apply it,” said New Zealand’s coach Ricky Henry after his side lost 54-4 in the final. “They did that very well – and we played our worst game.”

8) The women’s game needs a revolution

Reeling in Australia is a challenge for both men’s and women’s teams. The women will have to do it in the same way as the men. First, increase the number of foreign players in the NRLW. “It’s developing so rapidly in Australia and we’ve got to try to get on that train as well,” said Henry. “We’ve got to identify talent in Australia and get them on our database.” Second, funding is needed to enable the best female players to become part-time professionals. That requires sponsorship directly into the women’s game. They could learn from football’s Euro 2022.

9) British fans will support anyone but Australia

The Australia players were booed when they came on to the Old Trafford pitch for the final and the crowd remained partisan throughout. When Samoa attacked, the sound levels rocketed. One Australian TV presenter was left asking her colleague “Did you hear them booing?” Why do they hate us? We are nice people.” The majority of the 67,502 just wanted something to scream about and they got it after an hour when Jarome Luai’s rainbow pass found Kelma Tuilagi and he sent Brian To’o diving over. We had lift-off.

Latrell Mitchell celebrates after scoring a try for Australia against Samoa at Old Trafford
Latrell Mitchell celebrates after scoring a try for Australia against Samoa at Old Trafford. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

10) The Kangaroos are dominant even when struggling

By their standards, Australia’s performance on Saturday was one of their more ragged displays: they committed 14 errors to Samoa’s 10 and they had a completion rate of just 68%. But Samoa, forced to promote the ball in increasing desperation against a suffocating defense, were at 62% after an hour and trailed 20-0. The Kangaroos even won the sin-binning 10 minutes 6-0. They soaked up pressure – especially the right flank where flair players Latrell Mitchell and Valentine Holmes were magnificent in defense – and were clinical at the other end of the field. A winning combination.

11) Samoa are here to stay

This should only be the start for Samoa as major contenders on the world stage. The vast majority of the squad – including key men Stephen Crichton and To’o – are in their early 20s and unlike England, only two of their cup final team were older than 30 (Marty Taupau and late injury replacement Tim Lafai). A little worrying is the same applies to the Kangaroos: of their whole squad, only Ben Hunt and Daly Cherry-Evans are likely to be ruled out of France 2025 on age alone. More encouraging is Samoa’s depth of talent. Josh Schuster, Charlie Staines, Jaxson Paulo, and four-try hero David Nofoaluma were all missing from the side that beat the Cook Islands back in June, nor were internationals Jorge Taufua, Hymel Hunt, Mason Lino or Samoa-eligible Payne Haas here, while Tino Fa’asuamaleaui had since switched to Australia.

12) Build it and they will come

With Old Trafford 90% full despite England’s absence on Saturday, Samoa were watched by an average of more than 29,000 spectators in their six matches. That alone puts to bed any doubt whether there is a market for international rugby league in England. After the match, Samoa’s inspirational captain Junior Paulo was handed a fresh pint of beer, which he sipped nonchalantly before saying: “International rugby league deserves more success. We’ve seen what it means to people around the world. Now we’ve got to find a way to block off time to play.” And yet we don’t know if anyone is coming back to the UK next year from the Pacific.

13) Multi-team closing ceremonies work

The three-tournaments plan came off a treat and enabled a celebratory ending in the spirit of an Olympics closing ceremony. All three victorious teams – and Samoa – were on the Old Trafford pitch at the end, sharing the common bond of competition and triumph. Both Australia teams seemed as thrilled to complete expected victories as any underdog would. It was so refreshing. The jubilant Jillaroos, refreshed by two hours of cider-drinking, gave the England wheelchair team a guard of honor and cuddles; Australia lock Fa’asuamaleaui ran across to congratulate Lewis King; and James Tedesco shook hands with each England player. Even Aussie destroyer Reagan Campbell-Gillard reacted kindly when exuberant England player Wayne Boardman crashed his wheelchair into him as he raced to join the joint team photo.

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