This article was first written for NRL.com.
The countdown is officially over and today, the 2017 Rugby League World Cup begins.
The opening fixture is one of the most anticipated of the tournament with the Australian Kangaroos taking on England at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium tonight.
Whilst the Kangaroos and England are expected to be two of the strongest teams taking part in the tournament this year, interestingly it has been 45 years since the Paul Barriere Trophy was last claimed by England and in fact, England has failed to qualify for the last three tournament finals.
The English national team will be looking to change that in 2017.
Whilst there may be plenty of anticipation ahead of the opening clash of the tournament, if you have been following the media you will know that the build-up to this particular Rugby League World Cup has had plenty of interesting storylines.
Here are some of the reasons I’ve looking forward to this year’s tournament and why, for the first time ever, I’ll be tuning in.
Here come the Jillaroos
For the first time in history, the men’s and women’s World Cups will be contested side by side. This will culminate in a double-header final to be played at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday December 2.
This Rugby League World Cup is really the grand finale for what has been a ground-breaking year for women in league.
2017 will be remembered as the year that the Cronulla Sharks launched their Women’s Sevens team. It will also be remembered as they year that Queensland Rugby League and New South Wales Rugby League announced a partnership with Harvey Norman which will see a complete pathway for women to play rugby league from age six up to opens. It was the first time that the New South Wales women’s team won the Interstate Challenge in consecutive years.
Hopefully it will also be remembered as a year that the Jillaroos win the World Cup.
While this World Cup will be significant for Australian women’s rugby league we can’t forget about the other countries coming over to participate in the tournament.
Mark my words, one of the stories of this year’s World Cup will be the Papua New Guinea Orchids.
You may already know that rugby league is Papua New Guinea’s national sport. But it’s not just their national sport, it is their national obsession.
While women may have been playing rugby league in Papua New Guinea for many years in their local communities, this Rugby League World Cup will be the first time Papua New Guinea will field a women’s team. It is also the first time the women’s World Cup will be televised in Papua New Guinea and give people in that country the opportunity to connect women with rugby league in a meaningful way.
Whilst gender-based violence is still a problem in Australia, it is nothing compared to the violence and inequality that occurs in Papua New Guinea. To see women being strong, physical, confident and participating in what is that country’s national obsession will be fundamentally important in changing the gender conversation in Papua New Guinea – and that really is the true power of sport.
The development of international rugby league
Leading into this World Cup, plenty of fans may have predicted that it would be an Australian Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis final in the men’s.
That was before a number of players decided to represent their country of origin.
Suddenly things got interesting and in particular some of the teams from the Pacific Islands are looking extremely strong.
I can’t wait to see Mitch Moses and Tim Mannah run out for Lebanon. Or Herman Ese’ese, Ricky Leutele, Josh Papalii and Young Tonumaipea represent Samoa. The combination of Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumololo for Tonga will be something to behold. And who knew that Nathan Brown had an Italian background?
There will also plenty of familiar faces in the Fijian team including Kane Evans, Jarryd Hayne, Eloni Vunakece and Ashton and Korbin Sims. And all eyes will be on Papua New Guinea to see what some of their players learnt after the PNG Hunters lost to the Penrith Panthers in the Intrust Super Cup Grand Final earlier this month.
As a country so dominant in rugby league, Australia has a responsibility to help grow the game internationally, particularly among our Pacific neighbours where an increasing number of our first-grade footballers are coming from.
I hope that this World Cup signals the beginning of a journey which will see international rugby league celebrated and anticipated in the same way that State of Origin is.
Changes in the refereeing ranks
I never thought that refereeing was something that would have me anticipating a rugby league game.
I was happy to be proven wrong though when Belinda Sleeman was named in the referees squad for this Rugby League World Cup.
Both Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger continue to make strides as they edge closer and closer to making their debut in a first-grade NRL game. We have seen them both on the sidelines, for the first time in 2017 we saw them both feature in an NRL Finals game and come this World Cup, we might see Belinda make her debut on centre stage.
There is no off-season when it comes to rugby league and 2017 is no exception.
Good luck to all teams participating in the Rugby League World Cup this year – I can’t wait to begin cheering on the Australian Kangaroos and the Australian Jillaroos.