Former England and Great Britain star Jamie Peacock believes the Rugby League World Cup could transform the sport’s fortunes over the next few years.
The delayed tournament got underway last weekend and will culminate with the final at Old Trafford on Saturday, November 19.
England made the perfect start to their campaign, recording a comprehensive 60-6 victory over Samoa at St James’ Park.
Leading bookmakers such as Betway reacted to the result by cutting England’s odds to win the World Cup, although they remain behind Australia and New Zealand in the betting.
The competition has not been kind to England in the past, with southern hemisphere nations lifting the trophy on 12 of the 15 occasions it has been staged.
While England have hosted the World Cup before, it has failed to attract interest from most sections of the mainstream media.
Rugby union tends to dominate the landscape in England, particularly in the southern half of the country where the 15-man code is hugely popular.
However, with the BBC offering in-depth coverage of the tournament this year, Peacock believes the sport could reap the benefits in the future.
“We’ve seen in football with the European Championships that when a home nation goes deep into a tournament it brings everyone together,” he said.
“We’re not football, I get that, but we’re going to be on the BBC for a month. There’s time to build momentum, but that is generally only there when the home side is still there.
“The performance of England is huge in terms of how impactful the World Cup will be in this country.
“The aim for England has to be to make the final. If they do that, they’ll have momentum all the way through and that’s key.”
England’s performance against Samoa in their opening game was a superb way to lay down a marker at the tournament, and put them in pole position to reach the knockout stage.
Many respected pundits had tipped the Samoans to cause England plenty of problems, but the hosts tore them to shreds in clinical fashion.
Given the battle rugby league faces to attract attention from sports fans and the media, the victory was the ideal way to get people to sit up and take notice.
More than 43,000 fans were in attendance at St James’ Park, highlighting the passion rugby league fans have for the sport at international level.
Peacock thinks the tournament could give rugby league a massive boost by persuading casual fans to follow the sport on a more regular basis.
“The Super League has probably helped attract more casual viewers and helped the game grow at grassroots level,” he added.
“But I think if this tournament goes well, the game could strengthen through casual viewers becoming more hardened fans, which will then inspire the next generation.
“I think the people watching for the first time are going to see the most exciting team sport on the planet. It’s very simple to understand, but difficult to master with incredible athletes and great intensity.”
Despite Peacock’s enthusiasm about England hosting the World Cup, growing rugby league beyond its traditional heartlands has historically proved to be difficult for the sport’s bosses.
Ten of the 12 clubs in last season’s Super League were located in the northern half of England, with only Catalans Dragons and Toulouse bucking the trend.
With Toulouse finishing bottom of the table and Leigh Centurions winning promotion, the geographical imbalance will be accentuated even further next season.
Peacock insists the World Cup could be the trigger for the rugby league’s expansion and highlighted two cities he believes are ideally placed to jump on board.
“It could certainly happen in Newcastle,” said Peacock. “We’ve had the Magic Weekend there for a while and the fact that we’ve got the opening game there could be a catalyst. There’s a foundation there already.
Then there’s London. Historically, 10 to 15 years ago, we had a strong London team and that could reignite.
“So, rather than being focused around the M62, we could get somewhere in the north-east and get back with a bit of a stronghold in London. They’re the two areas that could benefit the most from hosting the World Cup.”
Establishing rugby league in new areas is vital to the sport’s future, particularly when it comes to keeping up with the top nation in the world.
Australia have long been the dominant force in rugby league, winning the world title 11 times and finishing as runners-up on three other occasions.
Their domestic league has also established itself as the number one competition, with the NRL now outstripping the Super League in terms of prestige.
NRL teams have won ten of the last 12 World Club Challenge games, having previously claimed just four victories in the previous 15 meetings with Super League sides.
Reversing that trend will not be easy, particularly given where rugby league in England currently lies in the public consciousness.
Football dominates most of the headlines, while cricket and rugby union are amongst the other sports that attract much more attention.
This has a significant impact on participation levels at grassroots level, which then hinders rugby league’s hopes of achieving sustainable growth.
Peacock acknowledges that the sport in England has plenty of work to do to challenge Australia’s supremacy at club and international level.
“We’re always going to be behind in terms of participation,” he said. “Over the last 15 years it’s grown and grown in Australia and the TV deals have grown, the money in the game is huge.
“Extra numbers of participation means they have got a far bigger talent pool and that allows them to be the best sides.
“The NRL is the elite competition now and that provides an environment of excellence every week. I think that brings a winning mindset.”