Rugby League World Cup Q&A: the toughest sport in the world

Oct 25, 2013
Jonathan Harwood

The history, the stars and the teams taking part in the competition that starts this weekend

THE 2013 Rugby League World Cup kicks off in Cardiff this weekend, as Australia take on England in the first game of a tournament designed to raise the profile of a sport that some still see as a provincial northern pastime - despite its expansion well beyond the M62 corridor between Manchester and Leeds.

Fourteen nations will take part in the first northern hemisphere World Cup since the ill-fated effort of 2000, which lost £700,000 and prompted an eight-year hiatus before the next tournament in Australia.

Where does rugby league come from?

It was "born out of a meeting of disgruntled northerners in Huddersfield in 1895", explains The Guardian. They split from the amateur Rugby Football Union over the issue of payments to players in an era where professionalism was frowned upon, but many northern sides featured mill and mine workers who couldn’t afford to play without payment. Over the years the rules of the now-professional sport changed to produce a faster game, dispensing with line-outs and and reducing the number of players per side to 13.

Is it really a global game?

Absolutely. In the UK, rugby league may be seen as a niche sport, but in Australia league is bigger than union, Aussie rules and football, and in rugby-mad New Zealand it comes a close second to union. It's also a popular sport elsewhere in the Pacific, which explains the presence of nations like the tiny Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea in the tournament. League is even responsible for the unexpected bond between the Lancashire mill town of Rochdale and the tropical islands of Fiji. Two Fijians moved there in 1961, explains the BBC, and now the town now has the highest Fijian population outside London. The game has also put down roots in Europe where it is growing in popularity. Italy shocked England in a pre-tournament warm-up match, and the game has a long history in France, where it was banned by the Nazis.

Who will win?

Of the 14 nations taking part, only three - Australia, England and holders New Zealand - have a realistic chance of winning the tournament. Australia won the title six times in a row before being beaten in their own back yard by arch-rivals New Zealand in 2008. They will be out for revenge this time round. But England will also be determined to end 38-years of antipodean dominance, but although Great Britain have won the title three times, most recently in 1972, England have never triumphed.

Won't it be one-sided?

The group stages of the Rugby Union World Cup often see mismatches as the weaker sides come up against the big guns, which is demoralising for the beaten side and not particularly interesting to watch. But the unorthodox draw for the league competition is designed to ensure that no-one is humiliated. The big favourites are in Groups A and B, which each feature four nations, of which three will go through. Groups C and D have only three teams, and only the winners will progress to the quarter finals. The countries in those groups also play one game against a side from the other group. "No team should go home without scoring a few tries - and that's better for the supporters and better for the development of the game," say the organisers.

How tough is it?

It is not a sport for the faint-hearted. The format, with the ball recycled quickly after each tackle, means there is little time for players to get their breath back and the action is relentless. It is also a game in which size matters. The BBC notes that "in a tackle, a rugby league player feels a force of over 10G, the same as a car crash". League players are a different breed to their footballing cousins, who go down at the slightest touch. The BBC recalls that Harlequins full-back Ben Jones-Bishop once played 25 minutes with a cracked skull, Great Britain's Paul Deacon fractured the roof of his mouth in 2005 and Warrington Wolves prop Paul Wood once played on with a ruptured testicle.

Sounds scary, what are the fans like?

A lot friendlier than the players. Recalling her first experience of the sport in Leeds, Tanya Aldred of the Daily Telegraph writes: "There was something about the spirit of the crowds at Headingley, the way women and children were not only made welcome but were part of the mix, and the frightening power of those human battering rams with their tight shirts and hides of brick that made it all rather thrilling."

Who are the big names?

The sport's biggest star is New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams (above, in action for Sydney Rosters). He started out in league and then switched to union, helping New Zealand win the World Cup in that code in 2011. He then became a boxer and won the New Zealand heavyweight title. Now he has changed codes again and will be part of the Kiwi team hoping to defend their title this year. Sam Tomkins, the world's most expensive player with a transfer fee of £450,000 will also be playing for England, alongside George and Tom Burgess, two brothers tipped to become huge stars.

Where can I watch it?

The BBC is showing seven matches, including England's three pool games. Every game will also be shown on the satellite channel Premier. And tickets are still available for most games, with half priced at less than £20.

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