/Harry’s game: England drawn with Samoa on rugby league’s royal day out

Harry’s game: England drawn with Samoa on rugby league’s royal day out

Ordinarily, the prospect of England facing Sonny Bill Williams in the opening game of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup would have been the biggest takeaway from the tournament draw on Thursday. However, bizarre circumstances meant all eyes were instead on the man charged with drawing the balls from Pot One.

Tournament organisers have promised the biggest and best World Cup in the sport’s history in October and November next year, and if the buzz surrounding the draw is even remotely matched during the tournament, they will almost certainly deliver on that promise. They will not, one suspects, have a backdrop quite as remarkable as this to build on, though.

The Rugby Football League’s patron, Prince Harry, had been pencilled in to conduct the draw weeks ago. It was seen as a coup for the tournament then, but in light of the Duke of Sussex’s intention to step back from royal duties, the fact this was his first public engagement since that announcement handed rugby league a glorious opportunity for mainstream attention.

“To have him there, front and centre in Buckingham Palace, was huge for the sport,” the RFL’s rugby director, Kevin Sinfield, said after the draw. “His involvement in our sport has been fantastic and he’s been engaging and enthusiastic.”

With the RFL hopeful he will retain his patronage, this should not be the last time the prince’s profile is capitalised on before the World Cup.

This was an odd day to experience first-hand. While Harry and the host broadcasters were at Buckingham Palace to conduct the draw – an event that, aesthetically speaking, looked fantastic – the rest of the dignitaries, media and big-wigs were housed 200 miles away in Manchester.

The plush surroundings of the Lowry Theatre were certainly in keeping with the event but with the tournament organisers told only a handful of VIPs could go to Buckingham Palace, it meant guests such as Rebecca Adlington were restricted to watching the draw unfold from a big screen at Salford Quays.

Yet despite that the day was well executed and there were stories to digest across the men’s, women’s and wheelchair draws. Fans will watch with keen interest to see whether Williams opts for Samoa or New Zealand – a decision he is allowed to make under the international rugby league guidelines despite already playing for the Kiwis. If he opts for the former, it creates an intriguing subplot for the tournament opener in Newcastle.

Prince Harry met Leeds Rhinos’ wheelchair team captain James Simpson (right) at events surrounding the World Cup draw.

Prince Harry met Leeds Rhinos’ wheelchair team captain James Simpson (right) at events surrounding the World Cup draw. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The theme was one of rugby league breaking new ground. When names such as Jamaica and Greece were being drawn out it was not too difficult to get excited about the global reach the tournament can provide for the game.

England should have no problems qualifying from a group containing Samoa, France and the debuting Greeks but their aspirations are set much higher than that. “The aim of the England performance unit is to win all three World Cups and that hasn’t changed,” Sinfield said. Realistically, the semi-finals should be the first serious test for both the host nation and the other heavyweights if all goes to plan.

With the world’s four best sides – England, Australia, New Zealand and Tonga – seeded into separate groups, it is difficult to imagine any other nation reaching the semi-finals. The best bet? Papua New Guinea, who beat Great Britain last autumn and were drawn in a mouthwatering group with Tonga, Wales and the Cook Islands. The holders, Australia, will play Fiji, Scotland and Italy, while New Zealand were drawn with Lebanon, Jamaica and Ireland.

England v Brazil in the opening game of the women’s tournament on 9 November could be a spectacle unlike anything seen in rugby league before, and there will be similar hopes for the wheelchair rugby, when the hosts take on Australia at London’s Copper Box Arena two days later. Whether the event itself will be able to cash in on a backdrop such as this again remains to be seen but as Prince Harry was drawing the balls on Thursday it was important for the sport’s purists to perhaps take a step back and appreciate what was happening.

If someone had suggested 20 years ago that a World Cup draw would be conducted by a royal at Buckingham Palace they would have been ridiculed. This day of firsts shows there is something to be excited about looking ahead.

Men’s competition draw
Group A England, Samoa, France, Greece
Group B Australia, Fiji, Scotland, Italy
Group C New Zealand, Lebanon, Jamaica, Ireland
Group D Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Wales, Cook Islands

Women’s competition draw
Group A England, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Brazil
Group B Australia, New Zealand, France, Cook Islands

Wheelchair competition draw
Group A
England, Australia, Spain, Norway
Group B France, Wales, Scotland, USA

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