Explainer: The venues, size structure, qualifying process being considered for RLWC2025
IRL chair Troy Grant and secretary-general Danny Kazandjian hosted a media conference after France 2025 withdrew from hosting the World Cup.
Among the issues discussed were:
- interest in RLWC2025 from potential new hosts;
- the possible size, shape and structure of the tournament;
- the future of the game in France;
- upcoming fixtures, and;
- obstacles to developing an international calendar.
Will the next World Cup retain the same 16 x Men’s, Women’s, Wheelchair and Youth team format as was planned for France 2025.
IRL chair Troy Grant: “The four genre World Cup was a requirement of the French Government, they wanted to make sure that our tournament in 2025 was a sport for all, with a particular focus on youth and also equality - in that the number of teams was equal across the disciplines.
“That is why it was such a large ambitious project. Obviously that size tournament, with the limited time frame, is probably unachievable at this time so a review of the size and scale will occur in July by the board, but no decisions have been made at this stage.”
IRL chair Troy Grant with HRH, The Princess of Wales (Getty Images)
What nations or regions are being considered to host the next World Cup?
TG: “We have received interest from New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, Qatar already, so we will be guiding each of those initial expressions of interest into our secretary-general to provide that to our strategy and governance committee where all of those and any other options will be presented, and proper due diligence done.
“We haven’t made any assessment in relation to the viability of those options, but it gives me comfort that there is interest in our sport and our World Cup. How real or viable any or all of those options are we are yet to make any determination."
IRL secretary-general Danny Kazandjian: “It's important to stress that these are preliminary contacts with us
"Our job now is to correspond and engage with these governments leading up until the strategy and governance meetings in June and then the board meeting in July, at which point we'll be able to table the credible options to give the board as many options as possible.”
Could the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair tournaments be held separately?
TG: “We are not wedded to anything, we have just got to adopt the best approach but the experience out of England RLWC2021 was that the uniqueness of our offering with the three World Cups being run at the one time was a massive point of difference that drew record commercial investment that we hadn’t seen before.
“It was historic in that we are the only sport that has ever conducted our World Cups in that format and it stood us alone and aside from other sports and differentiated us.
“Having experienced that in England, I really think it's critical to our future and even talking to all the athletes and the officials they described the atmosphere to me as being similar to being part of an Olympic Games or a Commonwealth Games.
“They felt part of a community, a broader community of rugby league than they would have got if it was just one genre of tournament.
“What the Wheelchair and Women's tournaments do attract outside of just a Men's tournament is government interest because of the diversity and equity components that often tick a lot of government boxes for investment, as well, so they play a couple of roles.
“They're great sports on their own, or great genres of our sport, but the three of them together, there was just something really special about it.
“It's the first time it's ever happened, so to not have that - not even to be able to assess that in a second incarnation - would be difficult and I think we'd let ourselves down by not doing that to see if it was a viable way forward for the future.
“It is a massive selling point so to abandon that strategy would be disappointing, but we have to be practical and pragmatic in any decisions we make going forward.
“We haven’t decided yet what the shape or size or components of the World Cup in 2025 will look like, but I think the great advantages we saw out of RLWC2021 was the massive viewership that, particularly, the Wheelchair bought to all of the tournament.
“The Women’s game is on a growth trajectory of astronomical proportions so to abandon those two and not take advantage of what we created at RLWC2021 would be a massive set back.
“I would say it would be a priority but whether it is achievable we will only know in July or after.”
“We can't run these things if they're just a great idea, but they end up costing us money and we go broke. You have got to find the balance and make them commercially successful.”
What are the benefits and concerns of the Qatar proposal?
TG: "I guess my assessment of Qatar as a potential candidate is just a personal one. It's not one that I've been able to give any proper consideration to in a formal sense.
"My personal view is that the attractiveness of Qatar would be in their financial capability to meet the costs of a tournament of our size and scale.
"Their stadia is first class and has been proven, with the FIFA World Cup having recently been held there successfully.
"The close proximity of stadia and the less travel that you would have to do, even compared to the World Cup in England, for example, would be massively advantageous for costs and would bring an advantage.
"It would be similar to a Magic Round experience that started in the UK and that now works so well in Australia, in Brisbane. I think it would create an amazing atmosphere.
"But equally, there needs to be proper due diligence on the human rights, particularly, because Women's Rugby League is so important to our code that we'd have to be satisfied on that front that there'd be no discrimination.
"Our ability to have a Women's World Cup, as part of it, would be central in addition to the Wheelchair and Physical Disability Rugby League opportunities that are there as well."
Would there be backing for a Pacific Word Cup?
TG: "Funding is absolutely realistic but stadium capacity is a difficulty in a number of smaller nations.
"In Apia, for example, I believe there is a stadium with a capacity of about 12,000 so it would only be suitable for a potential pool match, at best, and not for anything outside of that.
"There's a raft of possibilities but with all the travel and costs and all the rest of it, the economies of scale is a big component when you make these decisions. In some of the nations, there is not sufficient stadia and that's an issue."
What is the status of World Cup qualifiers and other scheduled fixtures?
FFRXIII president Luc Lacoste and IRL secretary-general Danny Kazandjian
DK: “We have to go through the process of assessing what we're doing in 2025 onwards, so we don't expect any decisions about tournaments such as the America's qualifiers to be made until after our July meeting.
“The European Championships is a property that's owned by European Rugby League so we're dealing with European Rugby League on how their competitions interact with our World Cup qualification events.
“Until we've got clarity around what the next World Cup looks like it's very difficult for us to give any determinations on what qualification looks like so we really need the time to work through all of the options for 2025 before we can make more concrete announcements about the qualification process.
“If there's still fixtures that are organized and want to go ahead on a bilateral basis, there's nothing stopping them from proceeding and being sanctioned as internationals.”
Could the World Cup be postponed until 2026 or even 2029?
TG: “No decisions have been made, but anything’s a possibility at this stage. If that was to occur, there would still be content of significance in 2025.
“Whether there is any movement, it’s got to be a sustainable, good window for us for the four-year cycle, because we also want to factor in our World Cup 9s, which are part of the calendar as well - where they fit and where they're best placed in conjunction with the other proposed tournaments that populate the calendar."
When will the International Calendar be finalised?
TG: “In relation to the calendar, the framework has been presented to the board and has essentially been agreed for some time, but then some nations withdrew their support in order to re-shape how potential content in the calendar was going to be run and organised.
“A lot of that related to the CBA where, for the first time, international payments for NRL players - and obviously there is a significant number who play for other nations outside Australia - was being framed up.
“I have met face-to-face with both [RLPA CEO] Clint Newton and [ARLC chair] Peter V’landys on the status of those negotiations and there is agreement on 95 per cent.
"The remaining five per cent isn’t for me to talk about. We are not party to those negotiations but essentially, it’s a source of funds with a caveat that a professional competition can’t dictate to our nations what they pay their players.
“I want to be clear I never promised the Calendar on any particular date, it was certainly always aspirational.
"It was June last year originally, and then it was December following the World Cup, but at that stage the CBA negotiations certainly held us up from any prospect of getting it out when we wanted to.
“It is central and critical to our future, and without that Calendar the reality is that our future is compromised in a number of areas.
“The members of the board know that and we have recently joined by a number of new directors in Peter V’landys and [NRL CEO] Andrew Abdo from the ARLC, and [RL Commercial MD] Rhodri Jones recently joined us from England.
"They are directors who bring a lot of commercial acumen and understanding and they also appreciate the significance of the calendar."
What international fixtures are being planned before the World Cup?
TG: “I have had a meeting with Trent Robinson, the coaching director of France, and France will be looking to tour the Southern Hemisphere in 2024 as part of the calendar and their development, so there is exciting stuff happening before we get to 2025 regardless.
"Tonga will still tour the UK later this year and there are other announcements that are very close in regards to other content in the Southern Hemisphere.
"I'm excited by what's being proposed in a big way, and particularly for 2024 as well.
"Broadly speaking there are seven nations in the Pacific region and to formulate tournaments around four or three teams is difficult so Peter V'landys and myself are in agreement that it gives one nation per annum the opportunity to tour to the north.
"I'm not saying that is always England either, there are big opportunities for it to be France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I think that's a big staple of the calendar going forward, to give you an insight.
"What happens in between World Cups is a structure of tournaments or series' that provide the very best product, rivalries, storylines and narratives, that are also commercially attractive, and that also take into consideration player loads.
"Given that you don't have one massive big tournament after a World Cup, et cetera when it impacts on pre-seasons and post-season player loads so that you keep the relationship with professional clubs who supply such a vast amount of players as well.
"All that architecture is in the framework for the calendar, we just need to get the CBA done up so we can finalise the commerciality of what's in front of the board to decide on and move forward."
What is the future of the game in France?
TG: “France still remains a priority for the IRL. Our aspiration was that this World Cup would be the launching pad for further investment, a professional league in France and continual growth.
"The IRL will not abandon France, it's just a matter of extraordinary circumstances not allowing us to have France 2025 occur in such a short time period, which was always an ambitious project.
"We aren't resiling from our commitment to France. [FFRXIII president] Luc [Lacoste] has got a meeting coming up with his governing body and I was comforted and assured by the commitment that I heard and I've received in writing from the Sports Minister about her commitment to French rugby league domestically.
"It's a blow and it's extraordinarily disappointing, but it's not an abandonment of French rugby league and we look forward to any and every opportunity we have to have events there in the future."
When did concerns emerge about France’s capacity to host RLWC2025?
Former French Prime Minister Jean Castex (3rd from left) announces the tournament in January, 2022
TG: "The French Government had set out some pretty strict criteria in an MOU with the IRL and France 2025 to give them assurances of the viability of the tournament, which in essence, was to garner enough support, not just economically but also across the breadth of France.
"Part of those conditions were to secure the support of localities and we required a dozen of those localities to have voted in their assemblies to commit funds and support the tournament.
"There was a very strong interest and a lot of progress was made. We were well on the way to doing that, we had letters of support from communities and localities committing their support.
"What happened after that was obviously the war in Ukraine, which led to an economic crisis and, more recently, a change in government and significant political instability in France.
"This then deeply affected those assemblies from gathering and formalising their support in a vote, which then did not meet benchmarks set out by the French government.
"Time extensions were given but due to circumstances outside the control of France 2025 or the International Rugby League, ultimately - as of the other day - those conditions were not able to be met.
"France 2025 were no longer able to continue to satisfy the government and they officially withdrew as hosts of the World Cup for 2025.
"The IRL, quite frankly, should never have been placed in a position where we were trying to identify a host within that limited period of time; the host for 25 should have been secured well before 2020, but we did the best we could.
"Luc Lacoste has brought a new zest and interest and a new enthusiasm to rugby league in France and whilst the meeting the other day with the French Government was disappointing, I am reassured by them and their commitment to the French game domestically.
"I thank the Minister for that support and and Luc Lacoste and French Rugby League will now consider their future and their strategies and opportunities with the French government, which is a positive that's come out of this process.
"Where that leaves us is obviously with a big question as to what do we do about the Rugby League World Cup in 2025.
“We always held out hope until a meeting the other night but very clearly from the outset of that meeting it was evident what the outcome was going to be.
"Our MOU originally was for a decision and contract to be signed in December last year but because of what was happening an extension was granted until March 31 by the IRL board to the French Government because of the delay in the assembly of votes.
“It was after March 31 that I started to have some concerns, but Luc left no stone unturned in order to resolve the issues and do his best, with what he didn’t control, to satisfy the French Government and it just deteriorated as the weeks progressed.
“There are two key things that must be noted: the French Government have funded France 2025’s work over the last 16 or 17 months, and I have read a lot of reports about the French Government taking EUR15m out of the budget.
“I have been in every meeting with the French Government and there has never been any withdrawal of Eur15m. I am not sure where that came from but there was no truth to that as far as I am aware because there was never an agreed quantum of funding - there was a percentage: 2/3 commercial; 1/3 government.
“It was a change in the government and a change in the landscape in France. The economic crisis pushed out the assembly votes to secure the commitment of funds from the localities.
“In that period, where the French Government were working with the LOC to reduce the pressure on the town councils, they were also dealing with an increase in the Paris 2024 budget of over EUR400m, so inflation had a really big effect on the amount of funding that was going into sport both centrally and through the regions."
Did RLWC2021 in England return a profit?
TG: "The World Cup 2021 was never set up to make a profit. We're like a non-profit organisation.
"They've met their budget, received support from the UK government, which is significant, and I'm not sure if all the accounting reconciliations have been completed but the IRL's rights fee, as part of that budget, is being met.
"While the final accounting is still being done, it was an an enormous success. We had record levels of investment that came into the competition.
"But what we were challenged by was record expenses that exploded with inflation. Our airfares tripled in the last 18 months beforehand, and accommodation costs went through the roof.
"I guess the thing is that potential profit in the profit sense of the word didn't eventuate because of those factors, but all bills are paid, all commitments are made if that makes sense.
"It was a success but all the changes in economics probably, I think it's been estimated that it was around GBP11m impact on what could have additionally been made had prices remained stable from a couple of years before the inflationary pressures that occurred."
Has IRL considered private equity investment?
TG: "This is a unique opportunity and the strategy and governance committee chaired by Peter V'landys has on their agenda to look at what the IRL needs to look like going forward, what our capacity needs to be and the skill sets that need to be in the IRL.
"We haven't canvassed any private equity investment into ourselves, at this point, but what we certainly will do is leave no stone unturned to be the best we can be.
"When I joined the board in 2020, our finances were done on an Excel spreadsheet. The governance arrangements for us were pretty much a glorified shelf company, to be honest with you, with a post office box and some committed people to it.
"What we have now is we've had is a strengthening of our governance arrangements and our capability through partnerships and leveraging relationships.
"We have only a couple of paid employees, the volunteer effort that goes in from a highly skilled collective - the volunteer effort - is massive but what can we sell or how can we attract anything until we get our calendar.
"It's the foundational document that we need to guide all that exploration into the commercial possibilities for the IRL and our future capability and capacity, as well. The calendar is the key to it all."
RLWC2021 photos: Getty Images