Rugby League World Cup: Littler's Ireland will play their part in 2021 tournament in England

By Padraig CoyleBBC Sport NI
Stuart Littler in action during the 2008 Rugby League World Cup
Stuart Littler in action for Ireland against Australia at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup

Despite the calendar of major sporting events for 2021 looking a little more crowded than previously anticipated, the Rugby League Cup World Cup is confident of taking its place with others at the top table.

In October 2021, it will be 67 years since the Paul Barrière Trophy was hoisted aloft for the first time.

Four countries took part in the inaugural event in 1954 - France, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain, who defeated the French in the deciding match in Paris.

Since those early days, a variety of competition formats have been tried out by the International Rugby League.

In recent years, as the number of teams competing in the tournament has increased, so, too, has League's popularity.

Premier League grounds to host matches

Next year, RWLC will take place at no less than 17 venues across England. Three major events will run in parallel, with Australia defending the men's and women's titles. For the first time, there will be also be a Wheelchair World Cup competition.

St. James' Park, Newcastle will stage the opening men's game between England and Samoa on 23 October.

The Emirates Stadium, the Copper Box Arena and Anfield will also host high profile games, culminating in a double-header men's and women's final at Old Trafford. This ambitious, three-sided sporting event looks set to be the most exciting World Cup of all time.

The Ireland men's team is drawn in Group C, alongside 2008 winners New Zealand, plus Lebanon and Jamaica.

The early planning stages of their preparations have been thrown into confusion by the coronavirus pandemic crisis.

Littler was part of the Ireland squad at the 2013 Rugby World Cup
Littler was part of the Ireland squad at the 2013 Rugby World Cup

Preparations 'up in the air'

"In terms of our preparations for next year, it's all a bit up in the air at the moment," admits Ireland coach Stuart Littler.

Littler is also head coach at Swinton Lions and lives in the Lancashire town of Leigh, one of the smaller tournament venues.

The 41-year-old, who won 19 caps during his playing days for Ireland, will bring his squad to a training base in Leeds, where the Jamaican, English, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and the Canadian (women's) teams will also be based.

"Leeds is a such a great rugby league city", he says. "I went to university there. The Leeds Rhinos are legends.

"The lads are doing their best to follow fitness programmes in this lockdown. I much prefer the personal touch of face-to-face conversations with players but, at the moment, we have to make do with group chats to discuss specific training plans. It's all we can manage until things change."

Crowded sporting calendar for 2021

What would have been, in 2021, a free run in terms of international profile and promotion, the postponement of the Olympic Games, the Lions tour to New Zealand and the European Football Championships will add huge pressure to the sporting calendar in general and, specifically, England's long awaited Rugby League World Cup.

Nevertheless, the organisers remain optimistic that the attendance figures will exceed the projected 750,000, which would represent almost double the figures for the 2017 finals in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

The majority of matches will take place in the heartland of rugby league, the gritty cities of the north of England where the game was honed and which were, from the 18th century, the melting pot of the Industrial Revolution.

They breed their people hardworking and determined and it is this spirit which will be driving the competition organisers to reach for the heights, come what may.

Care taken over tournament branding

The eye-catching tournament branding combines the tagline The Power of Together with a logo which incorporates the interweaving of coloured ribbons into the covered trophy.

Particular care has been taken in the choice of the tournament's purple branding, a strong, neutral colour which appears in none of the 21 competing nations' flags or kits.

The three competitions each has its own identifying colour - red for the men, orange for the women, yellow for the wheelchair games.

The organisers have been keen to give each one its own identity, avoiding political or nationalistic affiliations while symbolising the worldwide connections and unity that exist between teams and players.

While, as yet, no Northern Ireland players have been announced for the Irish men's team - and with no Irish representation in the women's or wheelchair tournaments - there is one local player taking on a major role in the preparations.

The Belfast-based branding and advertising agency Mammoth, who worked with Rory McIlroy's Foundation for five years and has an established connection with both the European Tour and the rugby agency Esportif, was successful in winning the prestigious branding contract, in the face of stern competition from companies across the water.

"We have a good track record in sports branding and were confident that we had the design team capable of creating something really special," explains Paul Martin, who formed the company with partner Jeremy Poots, in 2001.

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