Skip to main content
25 Nov 2022 | 13:13

The recent 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) marketed itself as the most inclusive event in the history of the sport thanks to all three tournaments (men, women and wheelchair) being held simultaneously. In this article, Alicia Newton considers what progress has been made over the past month, and the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring such an approach becomes the norm for future events.

There’s no doubt the Rugby League World Cup in England – delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic – provided an innovative and important step towards achieving equality for the women’s and wheelchair sports as all 61 matches from all three tournaments were broadcast live, bringing in huge new audiences.

By embedding such an approach from its outset, RLWC2021 organisers are confident that “a template for inclusion for future major events” has been created, with UK Sport adamant such events are “much more than what happens on the field of play”. The World Cup has helped to break down gender and disability discrimination within the sport, for example through all competitors from the three tournaments having received the same participation fee.


The tournament also marked a watershed for wheelchair rugby league as it was the first time the World Cup winners – England beat France in a thrilling final televised by BBC – have received a winning fee.

The landmark tournament also helped to reduce inequalities for women within established rugby league nations such as Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands as they look to make it a national sport for not only men, but also their women.

These disparities are not just gender-based either; they affect the resources and levels of investment available to competing nations. The Cook Islands head coach Anthony Matua commented: “Although we don’t have the resources of our bigger rivals, their passion is amazing and it’s a real pleasure to work with this bunch of girls.”


The tournament’s inclusive approach was therefore truly helping to ‘level the playing field’ across different areas of exclusion and discrimination.

It was also important to see the involvement of debut-making nations in all three tournaments. Jamaica and Greece qualified for the men’s tournaments whilst the USA were involved in the wheelchair tournament. This opens the door to new audiences and creates potential for investment in new regions for the game.

In the women’s tournament, Brazil became the first South American national team to qualify for a Rugby League World Cup despite having only played one official full international match. This shows how inclusion and integration can happen quickly and effectively, with Brazil captain Maria Graf noting: “What I really want is to become an inspiration to the next generation.”


On the inclusion of the new nations such as Brazil in the World Cup, England women’s captain Emily Rudge said: “It’s really exciting just for the growth of the game that it is spreading out across the world.”

Away from the pitch, the tournament also saw former England men’s international Kevin Sinfield complete his remarkable ‘Ultra 7 in 7’ challenge, raising £2million for Motor Neurone Disease, inspired by other former rugby players across codes like Rob Burrow and Doddie Weir. His feat shows that rugby league is a sport that can be a leader for inclusion and equality within the world of sport.

However, whilst the RLWC has made major strides forward for specifically the women’s and wheelchair games it must also be noted there’s still plenty of room for manoeuvre. Just like the women’s tournament two cycles ago, the Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) tournament has had to fund itself. It has made major strides in the past few years and could potentially benefit from rugby league’s increasingly inclusive approach in the years to come.

Tracy Power, RLWC2021’s Social Impact Director, believes RLWC2021 has measured up well in terms of targets around inclusion that were set beforehand. Reflecting on the statistics currently available, she told the Coalition: “The full Impact Evaluation of the tournament will be published in March, but we’re confident from the interim social impact report that we’ve overachieved on targets.

“We broke records on attendance figures in both the women’s and wheelchair games, as well as seeing unprecedented TV audiences for both. We succeeded in delivering a platform which gave parity to these two tournaments with the men’s, including participation fees, prize money and standards of accommodation, and this was depicted in the photo from the finals’ closing moment when we saw the victors from the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments celebrating together on the pitch at Old Trafford.

“The success of the wheelchair tournament was particularly poignant with 15 new wheelchair teams supported with funding for equipment, with the Capital Grants Funding Programme also focusing investment into deprived areas and growing participation in women and girls’ rugby league.


“We are confident we have set a template for inclusion for future major events, and we have already seen our inclusive volunteer programme replicated in this country, for example at the UEFA Women’s Euros and the 2022 World Gymnastics Championships.”

Tracy, who helps oversee the RLWC’s membership and contribution to the Sport for Development Coalition, revealed: “Our knowledge transfer is underway with UK Sport, and we’re highlighting how we created an impact before the tournament even started. We also delivered a two-day Observer Programme in conjunction with UK Sport to share knowledge from across the departments of RLWC2021 with other event professionals and events right holders. We were particularly pleased to welcome a member from the Cameroon Rugby League Federation who we funded to attend the programme as part of our international development programme.

“We are really proud of what we have achieved off the competition field with the RLWC2021, and we are now transitioning the social impact programme across to the Rugby Football League (RFL) for them to build upon what has been achieved and to ensure the legacy of the RLWC2021 is sustained.”


Esther Britten, Head of Major Events at UK Sport, told the Coalition: “Major sporting events, when hosted in the UK are about so much more than what happens on the field of play as we aim to ensure all events hosted in the UK have a wider community and civic benefit. The Rugby League World Cup offered an excellent case study of how to deliver a progressive, inclusive and diverse tournament with a wide-ranging community impact delivered in partnership.

“The tournament’s commitment to the value of inclusion has been demonstrated throughout from the integrated nature of the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments, with players from across all three competitions receiving equal treatment from hotels, to playing standards, participation fees and prize money. The BBC must also take credit for providing a platform for the women’s and wheelchair games alongside the men’s tournament and broadcasting all 61 matches across the three formats.

“UK Sport is on a mission to create the greatest decade of extraordinary sporting moments which reach, inspire and unite the nation. Going forward, we are fully committed to promote and advocate for major events to incorporate an inclusive approach at their core as part of our commitment to investing in diverse portfolio events across the nation that we can all be proud of.”

Read more about RLWC2021 social impact and inclusion programmes.