Rugby League is coming home: what the World Cup means for the sport’s Wigan heartland
A Rugby League heartland that has given so much to the sport is set to be repaid as the borough of Wigan – where the sport is “in the veins” – plays host to a series of World Cup matches.
Crunching tackles, fans celebrating tries and screams of “get ‘em onside” are already sounding across Greater Manchester towns as they feature headline clashes over the coming weeks from the men’s, women’s and wheelchair Rugby League World Cup.
Leigh Sports Village hosts its first tie – Wales against The Cook Islands – tomorrow evening (Wednesday October 19) and the DW Stadium will stage one of the tournament’s quarter-finals as well as round 2 clash between England and Canada Women .
Wigan Warriors have recently been joined by Leigh Centurions in the Super League, thanks to the latter’s successful Championship campaign last season – but the World Cup is sure to create a “legacy that will impact the game both in the short and long-term”, Wigan Council leader David Molyneux said.
The borough has produced some of the game’s biggest names – such as Sean O’Loughlin, Sam and Joel Tomkins, Andy Farrell and even successful rugby union converts Shaun Edwards and Jason Robinson.
And with Wigan, Leigh and Tyldesley among the first 22 rugby league clubs formed in the late 1800s – it’s no surprise the Rugby Football League (RFL) wanted other nations to share this history. It’s now hoped that the tournament will help safeguard the future of the sport in the region.
The high-velocity game is known for its brutal hits and fast pace – which is what has made it so popular in the North West and Yorkshire since its birth in 1895.
The game turned professional in order to cover the pay lost for players in working class towns who would be missing out on work to compete – the cause of the schism between the two codes of union and league.
The impact of Covid was huge on the sport, with many amateur clubs having to shut for long periods during the pandemic. This meant they lost out on vital revenue, leaving many in a vulnerable financial position.
Although thousands flock to Leigh Sports Village and the DW Stadium every week during the season, the sport lags behind Rugby Union and doesn’t have anything like football’s clout. So the pandemic was a huge hit to local clubs who weren’t able to return as quickly to action as the professional game.
Many of these grassroots clubs play a key role in generating future talent and invigorate the communities they are in, hosting big events and private functions alike.
These clubs are now benefiting heavily from the coming of the World Cup, which has provided the kiss of life to those in dire need of funding.
“This World Cup will have lasting legacy, and in terms of growing the game it has proved to be successful here in this borough,” Coun Molyneux said. “Rugby league is in the veins of every person in Wigan.
“Rugby league is the bedrock of this area. It [Wigan] has always been a big part of the game. I just hope we have at least one player from the borough in the final. I just think that we in Wigan are Rugby League, not St Helens.
“The 2013 World Cup here created memories and this one will will create more than that. I think it will create a legacy that will impact on a lot of people living here in the years to come.”
A total of 28 projects have been supported by the CreatedBy RLWC2021 Capital Grants programme costing more than £2.2m.
Wigan Council has also contributed to successful bids which have seen Orrell St James get a new £140,000 clubhouse and playing pitches as well as Shevington Sharks ARLFC’s £234,000 towards the development of a sporting provision for the local community.
Leigh Miners Rangers also got £336,000 to install a new training facility and Westhoughton Lions received £275,000 to create a fully accessible clubhouse.
There were a number of other smaller projects that benefitted as well.
A spokesman for the RFL said: “Like all sports, Rugby League was affected at grassroots level by Covid – and is now facing fresh challenges from the cost of living crisis.
"Overall participation numbers had grown for three consecutive years before Covid struck in 2020, and while that was driven largely by the development of Women’s and Girls’ Rugby League and a rise in all junior numbers, in 2019 there was also growth in the open age game.
“The mid-year figures from the 2022 season – the first full season post-Covid – suggest we have already returned to pre-Covid levels of activity – and in some settings already surpassed 2019 figures. Open age Rugby League hasn’t bounced back quite as strongly as other age groups but with strong youth activity this year we are confident we will soon see a return to growth at open age – and the aim of initiatives such as Three Lions Week is to ensure that the inspirational effect of three England teams competing in World Cups staged on our doorstep in the north.
“With attractive fixtures in Leigh, Wigan and across the North-West in Bolton, St Helens, Warrington and the finals in Manchester, this fuels further growth in the coming years.”
The RFL’s plan to refocus on grassroots came after a plan to introduce a new audience from North America did not go as hoped, with the Toronto Wolfpack team, founded in 2016, eventually pulling out of the English league due to “financial challenges”. The Canadian side now competes in North American Rugby League.
Although there is no current estimate as to the economic impact the World Cup will have, a wide-ranging cultural festival will ensure the excitement is not just on the pitch. Titled The Power of Together is featuring all manner of events, activities and performances staged at various locations during the tournament.
The opening of The Power of Together coincided with the men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cup trophies visiting the borough on Friday as part of the official National Lottery Trophies Tour.
Coun Molyneux added: “A major motivation for us to host tournaments like this and the UEFA Women’s EURO was the impact off the pitch for the benefit of our residents.
“The cultural schedule plays a huge role and we believe there’s something for everyone to get caught up in World Cup fever.”
The history of the borough’s love of Rugby League is now available for all to see at the Gerrumonside! exhibition – a nod to what you might hear fans screaming during the coming weeks’ matches. The exhibition – which opened in November 2021 – showcases original memorabilia relating to rugby names, including: Jim Slevin, Andy Gregory, Jim Sullivan, Phil Clarke, Shaun Wane, Billy Boston, John Woods, Des Drummond, and many other giants of the game.
There will be something on offer “for fans old and new” at the exhibition for the sport that “holds a special place for so many in this borough”, Coun Chris Ready, cabinet portfolio holder for communities, said.
The centrepiece of the museum is a 20m-wide wall brimming with fan images which capture the highs and lows of being a supporter.