Rugby League World Cup: England lead Box-office selling World Cup to wider audience

England's Dom Young (centre) congratulates Andy Ackers and John Bateman
Young (center) has become one of the stars of the tournament so far
Date: Saturday, November 5 Year: 14:30 GMT Meeting point: DW Stadium, Wigan
Cover: Watch live on BBC One, iPlayer and online. Listen to BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra. Text commentary and highlights on the BBC Sport website and app.

When Great Britain won the Rugby League World Cup in 1972, it created just a flicker of recognition at home.

Clive Sullivan’s outstanding long distance effort at the State de Gerland in Lyon, France helped give the Lions a tournament winning platform.

But he became famous long after the fact. At the time, few knew, few cared.

Only 4,200 turned up to watch the final in the giant stadium. the tournament had not been televised live and when Sullivan and his team-mates returned to England a few days later it was a wave of indifference and anonymity.

They didn’t even give them winners medals.

But 50 years later and the latest group of players representing these islands are actually making the cut.

If either Tommy Makinson or Dom Young can replicate what Sullivan has achieved five decades on, they are likely to become some of the most recognizable faces in British sport.

England go into Saturday’s quarter-final against Papua New Guinea knowing that the television audience has already started their exploits in good numbers. And the tournament as a whole, with every match on a BBC platform, is starting to achieve the cut that rugby league doesn’t usually achieve.

A healthy 1.8 million viewers tuned in for the men’s tournament opener between England and Samoa. And the figures for the other two group games are not far behind.

On a normal Super League match weekend, be it satellite channels or free-to-air, a figure of 300,000 viewers would be considered good. But that number has been surpassed by many of these World Cup games.

The England Women’s first game against Brazil on Tuesday afternoon on BBC Two with half a million viewers. This is more than just a race for the number of viewers who watched the Men’s Super League Grand Final live in September.

Australia – Scotland it may have been a hit, but a peak of 800,000 watched the late second half on BBC Two.

And many of the matches on BBC Three were also high, with regular audiences of over 300,000, more than that channel would expect for its usual programmes.

The TV buzz around the tournament in other regular programs – breakfast shows, newscasts, etc. – making this Rugby League World Cup arguably the most talked about ever by the British public.

The wheelchair tournament is almost certain to create a following and the further England’s men and women progress, the bigger the draw for the public.

The expectation will be for numbers of two million plus if any of England’s three teams can go all the way in their respective competitions. At a time when EastEnders and Coronation Street attract just over three million viewers for live broadcasts, this would be considered a success.

Sullivan was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame last week, 50 years after his magnificent effort. He is the only player from that 1972 team to be inducted.

But this current crop of England stars can expect much more immediate recognition from rugby league fans and well beyond if they can do what Sullivan did five decades ago.

For England’s men who will start by defeating Papua New Guinea in the quarter-final at Wigan on Saturday. That’s not a foregone conclusion, but Shaun Wane’s side are clear favourites.

PNGs have real quality on their side. South Sydney Rabbitohs fullback Alex Johnston is one of the NRL’s most prolific goalscorers. Justin Olam in the centers has Grand Final winning pedigree with the Melbourne Storm.

They have a real craft in the halves with Lachlan Lam – son of PNG legend and Australian assistant coach Adrian – and former North Queensland Cowboy Kyle Laybutt.

Edwin Ipape, the hooker, has won the Championship this year. He will likely do the same in next year’s Super League with newly promoted Leigh Leopards.

And there are some die-hards in a Papua New Guinean pack that has a reputation for being one of the toughest.

There’s an argument to be made that this is the best PNG side ever assembled. From the foundations of the PNG Hunters team, which started playing in the Queensland Cup competition a few years ago, they have put on an impressive display.

And these players will know how much passion and pride they bring to their homeland in a country where rugby league is almost a religion

But England should be a different class. PNG will likely give Wane’s side their sternest challenge of this tournament so far. But that’s what they need after a high-scoring exit from the group stage.

This is where the real hard work begins.

In fact, it feels like the World Cup is off to a good start now that the men’s race has reached the quarter-finals and women and wheelchair athletes have joined the party.

All four men’s quarter-finals this weekend are unmissable, but the real box office smash will be the clash between Samoa and Tonga.

After a terrible start against EnglandSamoa have started to pick up, as evidenced by their 62-4 win over France. Tonga had a shaky opener against PNG, but their pack is picking up speed, especially now that Jason Taumalolo is back from suspension and at his devastating best.

The performance of the pre-match challenges – by Samoa’s Siva Tau and Tonga’s Sipi Tau – will be breathtaking events. They will be worth the price of admission alone.

And whoever wins this game will have a real chance of becoming the first Pacific Island nation to reach a World Cup final.

If you haven’t started the Rugby League World Cup yet, now is a good time to start.

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