Taking a World Cup semi-final to the Emirates Stadium will help transcend rugby league, according to tournament chief executive Jon Dutton.
The 16th World Cup in 2021 will be almost exclusively based in the north of England, with just two of the 31 matches taking place south of Sheffield, but Dutton says holding a high-profile game at the 60,260-capacity home of Arsenal will provide a pivotal moment for the sport.
Organisers were committed to taking a big game to the capital and the Emirates got the nod ahead of Wembley and West Ham’s London Stadium when the 17 venues were announced at a launch in Manchester.
“London was probably the toughest area,” Dutton said. “It was an open bid process.
“We worked with the Mayor’s office and partners across London and we looked a lot at what our fans told us about experiences of going to London.
“I just think for the people sat on the train going into King’s Cross looking at the Emirates Stadium, now is the chance to go inside and experience it.
“Emirates Stadium is one of the most impressive sporting venues in the world and we are excited to be the first sport outside football to be played there.
“Staging our marquee semi-final in London will be a pivotal moment for the tournament.
“We have got to transcend rugby league, we have to reach a new audience and we think a wonderful, exciting venue like the Emirates offers that opportunity.”
Coventry will stage a group fixture at the Ricoh Arena but the other 29 matches will take place in rugby league’s traditional heartland, with occasional forays into the north-east, as organisers comfortably meet a Government target of holding at least 80% of the tournament in the Northern Powerhouse.
Elland Road will stage the other semi-final while Old Trafford will again host the final after drawing a crowd of 74,468 in 2013 for the clash between Australia and New Zealand.
Newcastle’s St James’ Park, which has lost the lucrative Magic Weekend to Anfield this year, has won the right to stage the opening ceremony, which will be followed by the opening game featuring England.
Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium is something of a surprise choice while organisers will take three matches to a purpose-built stadium in Workington which will have an official capacity of 8,000 but will be increased to the required 12,000 by the erection of temporary seating.
The stadium, to be developed by Allerdale Borough Council, is expected to be completed by the spring of 2021 at a cost of £15million and will be the new home for both League One club Workington and the town’s football team.
“I think it’s one of the most exciting things we’ve announced today,” Dutton said.
“We have some assurances on the timelines and there is a bit more work to do on the temporary capacity which will take it up to what we require.”
Dutton defended the decision to ignore Wigan’s DW Stadium, pointing out that games will be staged in neighbouring Leigh and Bolton.
“We’ve had some really tough decisions to make,” he said. “We had 40 bidders and unfortunately there were some we had to say no to.”
Rugby league is not new to St James’ Park (PA Archive)
The number of teams has been increased from 14 to 16 and fixtures will be played midweek to maintain momentum.
With the women’s and wheelchair tournaments being played alongside the men’s event for the first time, Dutton reckons there will be only three days throughout the whole five-week tournament without matches.
Five teams have yet to qualify for the tournament but the line-up will be complete in time for the draw to take place on November 27, two years out from the final.