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Six key talking points ahead of the 16th Rugby League World Cup

Twelve months later than planned, the 16th World Cup begins on Saturday afternoon in Newcastle with the first of 61 games in all three formats.

Here are the main talking points about what organizers say it will be the biggest and best tournament yet.

Better late than never

The four-year World Cup cycle was disrupted by the fallout from the pandemic, which ultimately forced the tournament to be postponed last fall when it would have had the benefits of being the only major event of 2021.

It will be matched against the T20 World Cup of cricket in Australia but is set to be completed before the FIFA World Cup in Abu Dhabi and organizers are hoping for a spin-off for the women’s tournament from England’s successful Euro 22 championship.

Of course, the organizers have had another 12 months to raise awareness and market games, so despite the initial ticket refunds, they remain confident of making the tournament a huge success on and off the field.

Australia remains the clear favourite, but there are real challengers

Australia will go into the tournament fourth in the latest world rankings, according to the latest International Rugby League list, but only because they have not played a game since 2019 and are bookmakers’ odds favorites to retain their crown.

New Zealand, who won the title in 2008, top the rankings and, with a top-flight squad, are sure to improve on their performance in 2017 when they failed to finish in the last four after losing to Tonga and Fiji.

Tonga emerged as a power five years ago and have since beaten Australia and Britain, while Samoa are being boosted by the availability of a host of star players who could have played for the Big Two.

England obviously have home advantage but a tough opening game against the Samoans and if they lose that they will most likely be in the Quarters against the Tongans leaving Shaun Wane’s men with an arduous road to the final.

What crowds can we expect?

Organizers announced three weeks ago that ticket sales have surpassed 300,000 and are getting closer to the total of 382,080 for the final World Cup in Australia in 2017.

Although organizers remain confident they can improve on the 458,483 total for the last home World Cup in 2013, their target of 750,000 now seems overly ambitious given the cost of living crisis.

However, Saturday’s opening game between England and Samoa will see over 40,000 spectators at St James’ Park and organizers say the other big games are on the brink of selling out.

The legacy

Regardless of the outcome on the pitch, World Cup officials believe the work that has gone into organizing the 2021 tournament over the past seven years will leave a lasting legacy.

Of the original £25m government grant, £15m was used towards organizational costs, with £10m distributed in small and larger grants to community clubs.

An independent report looking at the tournament’s social impact praised the success of mental health programs and volunteerism, while match funding raised around £21m for additional facilities including 38 new clubhouses, 22 changing rooms and 18 pitches.

Organizers managed to turn an initial investment of £635,000 into a total of £25.8 million, with the effect of improving physical and mental fitness, strengthening communities, boosting local economies and expanding the game internationally.

What chance do the other home nations have?

Perennial high achievers at the World Cup, Scotland will calculate their chances of starting with a win over Italy before taking on the daunting task of taking on Australia and their odds of getting out of the group are no more than 50/50 .

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