The decision to move the Olympics and the European Championship to 2021 could have Jon Dutton panicking. He is the CEO in charge of delivering the Rugby League World Cup in England next year, but he is staying calm using his position to reach out and thank the people doing the most for the country right now.

Can you explain why you are giving away 20,021 free World Cup tickets to key workers? “Because those frontline workers are doing such wonderful work across the country right now. It’s our way of saying thank you. Their work, effort, dedication and sheer determination needs to be recognised. Hopefully we can provide these local heroes and their families with something to look forward to next year. We wanted 2,021 volunteers for the World Cup but in 48 hours we had over 5,000 register. We’ve asked them all to support the Covid-19 efforts in their own communities. Our legacy projects include work on loneliness and dementia, so those are even more important issues now.”

How is coronavirus delaying your World Cup plans? “We were ready to announce the sequence of fixtures and the venues but it’s no longer practical to stick with our original timeline. At the moment we’re working on announcing team bases and a new brand with one logo that will represent the three tournaments – men’s, women’s and wheelchair – on 11 June, 500 days before the opening game at Newcastle. Then pre-sale of tickets in September and the ballot opening on 23 October, a year to the day before the opening match. We’ll revisit this if we need to. We were in talks with broadcasters to confirm kick-off times, but all that could change. It’s being dictated by other people, not us.”

How worried are you by the Olympics and Euros moving to 2021? “We see it as a real opportunity, not a threat. They can be celebrations that we have come through this. World Cups bring togetherness, joy and inspiration and provide memories that can last a lifetime. And we’re in a stronger position than most: we have time on our side, a small staff, a low cost base and we’ve done a lot of planning already.”

What concerns have you over the broadcast deals?
“We’re having conversations with the BBC but we’re at a quite wonderful place in that they’re committed to showing every minute of every game – men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments – across the BBC, all 62 games. They may be impacted by the Olympics and Paralympics moving to next year, but their commitment remains firm.”

Is selling 750,000 tickets still feasible given how many people may lose their jobs? “We’ve not amended any targets yet. We had finalised the ticket prices but that may need to be revisited. There will be a blend of prices, with kids’ tickets at £2.21 for some games. We have to price it right – it has to be affordable as people’s disposable income is going to be affected. We expect 92% of sales to be in the UK and we understand the community we will serve.”

If the NRL decides to play into November 2021, could the World Cup still go ahead? “Probably not. A scaled-down tournament is not really feasible. We expect two-thirds of the players in the men’s tournament to come from the NRL. We want the very best athletes in the world to be there.”

Would you consider pushing the World Cup back to 2022? “No, for many reasons, one of them being the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. It has to be in October-November 2021. We’ll start conversations with venues about availability and player welfare to ensure the players get an appropriate break.”

Given that 12 of the 18 venues are football stadiums – including Old Trafford, Anfield, the Emirates, St James’ Park and Elland Road – what concerns do you have about their availability? “No one has said ‘no’ to hosting teams and neither have any of the venues, but we don’t know what the future holds. Any disruption to the Premier League or Championship may have an impact on us – and so would changes to the Champions League or Europa League. We’re at the back of the queue.”

How much of your commercial revenue has already been banked? “I couldn’t give a figure but it’s mainly public funds from the government and host cities. What I can say is we’ve only spent 8% of our total budget so far. We’ve been incredibly prudent. We can’t guarantee we’ll reach the targets we forecast a few weeks ago, but I’m optimistic. We’ve had some really interesting conversations with commercial partners.”

What if Australia cancel the Ashes this autumn? “It would be a real blow as we need it as a marketing tool for 2021. We’ll wait patiently for decisions from the RFL and Australian Rugby League Commission. We don’t know what England are going to do yet. We do know that we’re planning for the warm-up games to be connected and harnessed to lead into the World Cup.”

The decision on who will host the 2025 World Cup is due next year. Would England step in and host it again? “Absolutely not. If it should go ahead as planned, it won’t be here.”

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