The culture secretary Nadine Dorries made an embarrassing gaffe during a speech at a Rugby League World Cup event in St Helens on Thursday as she reminisced about her favourite memory from the sport – Jonny Wilkinson’s iconic drop-goal in 2003 to win the rugby union World Cup.
Dorries – the secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport – appeared to confuse the two rugby codes as she told her audience: “I’ve always quite liked the idea of rugby league. My long-standing memory is that 2003 drop-goal. I’ll let you into a secret, we were drinking Bloody Marys at the time; it was 11 o’clock in the morning. But wow, what a moment that was.”
She added: “I’m not going to stand here and pretend I’m an expert who watches it all the time, but it’s an incredibly physical, sometimes quite brutal sport and it often ends up in a scrum which actually reminds me very much of politics. I think we have a lot in common and, given that a lot of the media like to call me the prime minister’s attack dog, I wonder sometimes if I should give rugby a go.”
Dorries was speaking at an event setup to unveil the findings of a report that claims the 2021 Rugby League World Cup – delayed by the pandemic until later this year – has already made £25m worth of positive change in communities across the north of England through its social impact programme.
The report hails the success of raising funds for sporting facilities such as pitches, clubhouses and changing rooms, and Dorries said: “We know that some of the towns and cities that will host Rugby League World Cup 2021 matches are among those hardest hit by the pandemic and increases in the cost of living. The Government has backed the tournament with over £15m of investment to bring world-class sport to these communities.
“The findings published in this report today are vindication of the decision taken to prioritise the social impact programme from the very outset. It has been trailblazing in both its inception and delivery, laying the groundwork for future sporting events in this country and beyond to follow in its footsteps.”
AUDIO of gaffe by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries during speech at a Rugby League World Cup social impact event in St Helens earlier.
“I’ve always quite liked the idea of rugby league - my long-standing memory is that 2003 drop-goal… Wow, what a moment that was.” Listen 👇 pic.twitter.com/wD1FPJaK1e
— Dan Roan (@danroan) June 30, 2022
However, in a mistake unlikely to have endeared her to a room full of rugby league officials and advocates, the cabinet minister then appeared to confuse league with rugby union when she referred to “that 2003 drop-goal”.
Although it is possible she was referring to Paul Deacon’s drop-goal for Bradford Bulls in their 2003 Super League Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors, the phrase is more commonly used to describe Wilkinson’s extra-time kick that beat hosts Australia in Sydney and clinched England’s sole union World Cup. The game kicked off at 10am in the UK and many England fans tuned in to watch the famous finale.
Later, Dorries tweeted: “Like Jason Robinson I may have switched codes in my speech... Both league & union have a rich heritage in the UK. Obviously I’ve followed rugby league much less in my lifetime, but I’m looking forward to watching England (& all the home nations) in the RL World Cup this Autumn.”
World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton said he would be inviting Dorries back to attend the matches “to see for herself what a wonderful sport rugby league is”.
“We’re delighted that she came,” Dutton said. “We’re delighted that the government has shown such a massive commitment to investing into the tournament and its social impact programme. My final words to the secretary of state were that we would be delighted if she were to come back to the tournament, maybe to attend each of the three disciplines and see for herself what a wonderful sport rugby league is.”
Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer refused to criticise Dorries for her error, preferring to thank the government for its £25m backing.
“I’m not going to dwell on that,” Rimmer said. “It’s brilliant that she’s here and we’ve had fantastic support from the government. I’m not going to knock the shine off any of that. She gets a chance to see us as we really are and good on her for coming up.”
The delayed 2021 Rugby League World Cup begins on Saturday 15 October.