By Paul Martin
Stuart Pearce has backed England’s rugby league stars to succeed where his class of Euro 96 failed and lift a major trophy on home soil.
The former Three Lions skipper swapped the round ball for an oval one this week after being called upon to give a rallying cry to Shaun Wane’s squad ahead of their final World Cup group match with Greece, with a quarter-final place already secured.
Pearce watched from the stands in 2013 as England slipped to a 20-18 defeat against New Zealand in the last four at Wembley – the scene of his own semi-final heartache 26 years ago.
But the 60-year-old, who was in Bolton for England’s 42-18 win over France on Saturday after hot-footing it from watching former club Nottingham Forest defeat Liverpool, believes this year’s crop can go all the way.
“I saw a really happy camp that had a real togetherness and some exciting talent,” he said. “The atmosphere around the place was very good and they are completely focused on what they want to achieve.
“There will be some tough games en route to the final, let alone the final itself, but I see no reason why they can’t win it.
“Shaun has created an environment that is relaxed but with a really serious focus on what they are trying to achieve.
“I touched on my experiences and having come out of major tournaments on our shores, like Euro 96, I know the excitement that generates around the country.
“If we are successful in this tournament, all of a sudden you find people who might not have followed rugby league, or don’t know what a great product it is, and you can get them hooked. It is a fantastic opportunity.”
Pearce was working for the FA when he took the opportunity to watch ex-England and Great Britain coach Tony Smith, then in charge of Warrington Wolves, give a talk which had a lasting impact.
The 78-cap left-back has since become a regular Super League spectator and believes his two treasured sports can learn from each other on and off the field.
🏆 Nearly 10 million tune in to the opening rounds of RLWC2021
The tournament continues to reach new audiences with every game live free to air in the UK, and record-breaking app downloads.
Read more: https://t.co/dqOc9z66ac pic.twitter.com/0lNCK3JkMw
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) October 27, 2022
“Rugby league could market itself a bit more as it’s such a good sport and needs to spread the word,” he said.
“But football should look at the level of honesty in rugby league, where there is no diving – unless you’re going over the line for a try. You can get frustrated with football now.
“The camaraderie you see at the end of rugby league games between opposing players impresses me, as does the fact it’s a game that lasts 80 minutes and the ball is in play the vast majority of that time.
“I enjoy the aggressive nature of the game coupled with the high skill level. You have to be good with your feet as well as your hands.
“The World Cup has been a great watch so far – and the best is yet to come.”
Pearce earmarked George Williams as his player of the tournament to date and the Warrington ace will captain England this weekend at Bramall Lane as they look to continue their momentum.
Wane believes Pearce’s visit has given them the inspiration to do just that and said: "Stuart is an impressive Englishman who is very passionate. We've learned a lot off him.
"We're going to have other people coming in - it's important players experience that. There are other ways of learning that will make us better at rugby league. Listening to legends like him was very important."
The Rugby League World Cup promises to be the biggest, best and most inclusive event in the sport’s 127-year history with men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams competing in 61 games across 21 venues throughout England. Tickets are available via rlwc2021.com/tickets