By Megan Armitage
Martin Offiah believes that the Rugby League World Cup 2021 has taken the first step towards a future of inclusivity in sport.
The former England star hailed the World Cup's three-game blueprint, with the men's, women's and wheelchair tournaments all involved in one event and believes the sport has once again created an innovative legacy, in part thanks to National Lottery funding.
With England’s wheelchair team reaching the final and both the men’s and women’s teams narrowly missing the final spectacle in Manchester, Offiah hopes their efforts have inspired a new generation of players.
"This World Cup has been fantastic for rugby league," he said.
"It's always been a sport that's broken-down barriers. It might not be the most dominant in terms of numbers, but it has always been a thought leader in terms of what it has given to the world of sport with innovations, the ways it has led in fitness, VAR and sin bins.
"To continue that mantel and have the wheelchair, women's, and men's games all going on, we really are pushing for a time of inclusivity and diversity.
"Rugby league is putting its flag down and I really hope we see other sports copy us in the future.
"Rugby league has always had to be creative to survive and I can only see that continuing in the future, hopefully creating a new legacy for youngsters.”
Offiah was joined by former Lioness Rebecca Stevens and England wheelchair player Nathan Mulhall in a visit to Folly Lane ARLFC, who have received £9,552 of National Lottery RLWC2021 CreatedBy funding, to witness the increased levels of interest from people wanting to play rugby league over the past five weeks.
Folly Lane are just one of hundreds of community clubs that have benefitted from National Lottery RLWC2021 CreatedBy funding which is part of The National Lottery’s wider £9.3m investment into rugby league between 2022-2027.
And Mulhall echoed Offiah's sentiments, believing that the three-game blueprint is just the beginning of an even bigger legacy for the sport.
He said: "This World Cup has just put rugby league at the forefront of everyone's mind.
"We're the first sport to have three different types of world cup at the same event. We are pushing for inclusiveness and inclusivity at every level.
"We've now shown that we can showcase every element of the sport, with the PDRL (as above?), wheelchair, women's and men's games all having the same platform.
"I don't want this just to be a one-time thing, I want this to happen at every World Cup as it cements a legacy and grows every element of the sport."
If it was not for National Lottery players stepping in during the pandemic and providing the support required to recommence the Women’s Super League, the women & girls’ game may not have survived.
And Stevens believes that this World Cup has finally shown people the astonishing level of women's rugby league, England versus Papua New Guinea attracting a televised audience of 1.2 million.
"To see the audience that the women's game is getting is amazing," she said.
"We want to progress to the women being professional players like in the NRLW, we want to compete with them, and if we can show that we can attract those audiences then that can only help.
"People are finally sitting up and thinking 'these girls can play'.”
The National Lottery are an Official Partner of the Rugby League World Cup 2021 (RLWC2021). As part of this, they have provided financial support to clubs & communities across England through the RLWC2021 CreatedBy Grants Programme, contributing over £750,000.