Rugby league is undergoing a tremendous surge in popularity across the globe and it’s partly down to one of the biggest financial cock-ups in world sports history; the 2000 RL World Cup, which is to World Cups what Gary Glitter is to Glam Rock.
Now, I covered the 2000 Rugby League World Cup, mostly for a website called rleague.com, but also for teamtalk and playtheball.com. And whilst it was a financial disaster for the RFL and a miserable wet washout weather-wise, I loved it. Here were countries like the USA, Canada, Russia and the Lebanon competing on the world stage in a rugby league tournament.
Never mind that most of the foreigners in those teams spoke English with more than a hint of Antipodean twang, here was fantasy rugby league. Rugby league played around the world.
It was something undreamt of when as a 13 year old I picked up a copy of the Rugby Leaguer newspaper. At the time it was a thin and conservative looking black and white newspaper and at the time Batley and Dewsbury, Hull and Castleford were all exotic sounding places to be playing rugby. The occaissional mention of an Aussie club and the Sydney RL scene was pure thrill to me back then.
In addition to the Four Nations tournament sixteen other nations in Europe alone (Belgium, Catalonia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lebanon, Morocco, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Ukraine, and Wales) will all take part in either European Cup or European Federation tournaments.
And on Saturday (4 July), building on the success of the Les Catalans versus Warrington Super League game, more than 1,000 supporters turned out in Barcelona to see Morocco XIII beat Catalonia XIII 29-6 in the opening fixture of this summer’s RLEF Euro Med Challenge (which also involves Belgium).
In total Europe will stage five international Rugby League competitions this year, with the Four Nations involving Australia, England, France and World Champions New Zealand looking set to be the biggest tournament to be held in the northern hemisphere since the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
RFL Chairman Richard Lewis, who is also Chairman of the RLEF, said: “Following the success of last year’s World Cup in Australia, 2009 is a massive year for the international game in Europe with so many nations competing in a number of prestigious competitions.
“The highlight will certainly be the Four Nations which will see fixtures played on both sides of the channel and see the top two sides in the northern hemisphere lock horns with the two best from the south, including the newly crowned World Champions.”
Other competitions include the rebranded European Cup involving six nations who either participated in last year’s World Cup or took part in the qualifiers plus the three Euro-Med competitions (Challenge, Shield and Bowl), which help to propagate and foster the sport internationally.
Two of the five tournaments planned for 2009 got underway this weekend with fixtures held in Spain and the Czech Republic.
October 17 will also see the start of the European Cup involving Ireland, Lebanon, Russia, Scotland, Serbia and Wales.
The six sides have been drawn into two groups of three and the competition will climax in a ‘Finals Days’ on Sunday 8 November at Brewery Field, Bridgend at which the respective sides finishing third, second and top of their groups will play against each other.
RLEF Development Executive Kevin Rudd said: “The European Cup is moving forward as a brand and an even more meaningful part of the representative calendar.
“Every nation is now guaranteed three international games as a minimum during the season and the Finals Day is set to be a real highlight of the year with six sides on show and seedings up for grabs.”
The 2009 competition will also provide rankings for next year’s European Cup which will also involve France, the winners of which will qualify for the 2011 Four Nations alongside Australia, England and New Zealand.
RLEF European Cup 2009
Pool 1: Lebanon, Russia, Scotland
Pool 2: Ireland, Serbia, Wales
Saturday 17/10/09, in Moscow – Russia V Scotland
Sunday 18/10/09, in Limerick – Ireland V Serbia
Saturday 24/10/09, in Tripoli – Lebanon V Russia
Sunday 25/10/09, in Belgrade – Serbia V Wales
Sunday 01/11/09, in Glasgow – Scotland V Lebanon
Sunday 01/11/09, in Pontypridd – Wales V Ireland
Sunday 08/11/09 in Bridgend
RLEF European Shield 2009
Teams: Italy, Germany, & Czech Republic
Game 1 -Czech Republic V Germany: Saturday 4th July, Olomouc Game 2 – Italy V Czech Republic: Saturday 11th July, Padova Game 3 -Germany V Italy: Saturday 18th July, Hurth
RLEF European Bowl 2009
Teams: Estonia, Latvia, & Ukraine
Game 1 – Latvia V Ukraine: Friday 24th July, Riga Game 2 – Ukraine V Estonia: Sunday 26th July, Riga (Ukraine given up home fixture due to practicalities/finances involved with travel) Game 3 – Estonia V Latvia: Saturday 8th August, Tallinn
RLEF Euro Med Challenge 2009
Game 1: Catalonia XIII v Morocco XIII, (Barcelona): Saturday July 4th Game 2: Belgium XIII v Catalonia XIII, (Wavre): Saturday July 25th Game 3: Morocco XIII v Belgium XIII, (Bézier): Saturday August 15th