|Venue: Ricoh Arena, Coventry Date: Saturday, 5 November. England v Scotland 17:30 GMT New Zealand v Australia 20:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Two, plus highlights; live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; text commentary on BBC Sport website and app|
International rugby league expands into unchartered territory in Coventry on Saturday – with the help of one of England’s top rugby union sides.
By taking the Four Nations to the Midlands, Wasps – a club with a previously nomadic existence and now owners of the Ricoh Arena – helped England win the right to host rugby league’s World Cup in 2021.
Rugby league thrives along the 127-mile stretch of the M62 between Liverpool and Hull, but the Four Nations is being showcased on a truly national stage – seven games at six venues in six regions, culminating in the final at Anfield.
Jon Dutton, the Four Nations’ tournament director, said: “As we put the bid in for the 2021 World Cup, this international tournament was incredibly important in terms of moving on from 2013 World Cup and working towards that next one here in five years’ time.
“We had a strategy in building the schedule – it was about visibility and profile, using a mixture of iconic venues new to the sport and staging games in core rugby league markets.”
That includes taking England to London Stadium, where victory over Australia – according to retired rugby league great Martin Offiah – is vital if the game is to get renewed life in the capital.
BBC Sport looks at the potential impact of the year’s biggest international tournament, as the Rugby Football League boldly tries to showcase the game across England.
A magic place to be?
When Wasps were plotting to relocate from London to Coventry in 2014, rugby league was already part of the grand plan.
Surprising, if you consider them a rugby union club. Logical, if you take into consideration that they were to buy a full share of a 32,500-seater stadium that comes with a 9,000-capacity indoor arena.
Of 777 events in 2015, 16 of them were rugby union matches. Just 35% of their revenue came from the game.
“We knew we had to get the venue working hard all year round and it wouldn’t just be about rugby and football,” said Wasps Group chief executive David Armstrong.
“We need as many uses as we can, so rugby league was in the thinking at the time.”
The Ricoh Arena has only staged one previous rugby league match – an English third-tier game between Coventry Bears and Keighley Cougars, which attracted a crowd of 1,097.
However, they were showcased as a potential host city for the 2021 World Cup and have bid to stage Super League’s Magic Weekend in the future, which feature six top-flight matches over two days.
“We were pipped at the post by Newcastle for Magic Weekend in 2017,” Armstrong said of St James’ Park’s successful attempt to host the event for a third successive year.
“We hope it will come here in the future and allow fans in the West Midlands the chance to watch all the Super League clubs.
“We would be disappointed if we didn’t have rugby league being played here every year.”
‘JT will open eyes’
Coventry, it seems, is where the rugby league-mad north meets the rugby union stronghold in the south – a romantic notion considering that almost 200 years ago in the nearby town of Rugby, William Webb Ellis picked up a football and ran with it to effectively invent the game of rugby union.
The codes were split in 1895, but Armstrong says any existing divide between the sports is now exaggerated.
“We are not developing a competitor, we are developing a companion,” he said.
The two sports are most closely integrated through the ‘City of Rugby’ initiative, under which the development and promotion of both codes is streamlined from grassroots to elite level.
League side Coventry Bears have their roots in rugby union, organising bucket collections at Coventry Rugby matches so they could buy their first kit in 1998.
Alongside Wasps and Coventry City Council, the Bears worked on the Four Nations bid.
Alan Robinson, Bears founder and managing director, said: “There is no better opportunity than this to open people’s eyes to rugby league, as people are a little blind to it here.
“It’s not rugby union. It’s different, it’s explosive, it’s fast.
“They might not know who Johnathan Thurston is, but if they see him and see what he can do, and see Shaun Johnson and what he can do, they won’t be able to deny that skill and respect it for what it is.”
What the players say…
England winger Ryan Hall: “It will be interesting down there. I know they have a team, Coventry Bears, and that is something that the RFL want to develop – they see an opportunity there and I’m more than happy to see rugby league spread its wings and get about a bit and we are doing that in the international game.”
Australia front-rower Aaron Woods said: “It’s an honour to get tasked to play in those sorts of places. It’s really good for the international game to grow – you have to grow. I look at rugby union and how big it is worldwide and if we can get rugby league as half as good as that it would be good for the game.”
Star lights need to shine bright in London
Rugby league sits on the fringes in London but at its sporting heart at the same time. The game’s greats are immortalised outside Wembley Stadium alongside a statue of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore.
Offiah, one of the most prolific try scorers in rugby league history, is one of the five players represented, celebrating his most famous try, an 80-metre dash against Leeds in the 1994 Challenge Cup final.
He also had spells playing for London Broncos in Super League, was part of the England side that lost the 1995 World Cup final to Australia and is now a trustee of the London Rugby League Foundation.
“To have big international rugby league matches is important as it keeps the light on for the game in London,” said the 50-year-old.
Wayne Bennett’s England side, he stressed, will be shouldering that responsibility when they play Australia in the capital on Sunday, 13 November (14:00 GMT).
“England needs to win,” said Offiah, who was injured the last time the national team beat Australia in 1995.
“This is sport, not a drama film. There is no script written, so if people go to a sporting event and feel they have seen it before, it will lose its appeal.”
The London Rugby League Foundation was started in January 2015 with the aim of helping to grow the game in the south east of England, where there are 1,500 junior players at 19 clubs in the region – twice the number compared to a decade earlier.
And, with the charity delivering coaching to 5,000 primary and secondary school students in the 2015-16 academic year, while also working extensively with community clubs in the region, Offiah proudly says the game has “a hold” at grassroots level.
But since the Broncos’ relegation from Super League in 2014, London has not been represented in the top flight.
And, while the England v Australia game is just the second elite match hosted in the city in 2016, after August’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley, it is expected to attract the biggest crowd of the Four Nations.
‘Building on the World Cup legacy’
Workington Town’s Derwent Park home, the smallest Four Nations venue, stands as a testament to its pedigree as an international rugby league destination, having been upgraded in order to host two World Cup matches in 2013.
When the world’s top-ranked team New Zealand face Scotland there on Friday 11 November (20:00 GMT), hopes are high that the game will inspire greater interest in rugby league and a club recently relegated to League One and facing hard financial times.
Malcolm Allison, director of Workington Town, said: “That is the legacy you want the game to leave behind. We already have the facility legacy and now a fantastic spin-off would be having youngsters from the area getting involved, participation to grow and interest to increase.
“There’s no doubt that relegation in isolation is a massive disappointment for the club and the fans.
“However, what it has done is allow us to reassess things, bring together a wider board of directors and review the structure of the club both on and off the field.
“The fact that we can look forward to an international match between Scotland and New Zealand is a real tonic for the fans of the local area.”
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