Come October, all eyes will be on the 14 countries competing in the World Cup in Australia. However, what many people won’t be aware of is that the competition has already begun. Well, sort of.
The Festival of World Cups happens every four years, as a build up to the main tournament, with several different branches of Rugby League having their own competition.
Australia took both the student and woman’s defence force titles last week, while there was also a surprise win for Fiji, who triumphed in the men’s defence force tournament.
Next up is the Wheelchair World Cup, taking place in France with a record seven nations competing.
While France and England are favourites, with this year’s hosts winning the last World Cup, one outside bet are Wales who, despite a complete change in squad and coaching staff over the past four years, are looking stronger than ever.
“It’s been an interesting four years since the last World Cup,” said Andrew Higgins, Wales’ goalkicker and a key part of their World Cup squad. “The year after the World Cup was difficult because the entire squad and coaching staff left so the whole team had to be rebuilt, but since then we’ve been constantly improving.
“In the first year as a new team we played in the Four Nations, finished bottom and were conceding 60 points per match. So then last year, coming second in the Four Nations and pushing England in a really close match shows how competitive we’ve become.”
Andrew came into the Wales squad in 2014 as part of that rebuild, even though he’d only been playing the game for five months. And despite having never sat in a wheelchair before, he quickly became one of his country’s key players.
“I started off playing the running game but was too young to play for my local team. I got asked to go along to a training session for the North Wales Crusaders wheelchair team in March 2014, so thought I’d give it a go. I went to one session, got hooked and never stopped going back.
“Then, that summer I got asked to go to a Wales training session and was announced as part of the Four Nations squad in August. Since then I’ve played every game the national side has had, earned 15 caps and played in five major tournaments.
Andrew is just one of many to try their hand at wheelchair Rugby League over the past few years. The game is rapidly growing in Britain and Andrew doesn’t see that progression halting anytime soon.
“The game’s expanding all the time and there’s new clubs coming in near enough every year. Even the league’s had to change to accommodate all the new teams,” says Andrew.
“When I first started off there was just one big league with 12 teams. You would only play once a month and because the season is quite short you wouldn’t get to play every team.
“Now, though, the league has been separated into the Premier Division, which North Wales play in, the North Division and the South Division. So every team has games at least once a month and you get to play every team home and away. It’s improved logistically as well, because now you don’t have teams travelling from Hull, for example, to play in Medway in Kent.
“We’ve also got the Challenge Cup as well now, which is the same as in the running game. It wasn’t such a big thing at first, but now with the separation of the leagues the Challenge Cup is seen as the big prize so everyone wants to go for it. There’s even two Scottish teams involved in that as well.”
As for the World Cup, Wales face a tough test, coming up against France, England and Australia in the group stage. But Andrew says the prospect of coming into the tournament as underdogs doesn’t faze him and his teammates.
“England probably go into the competition as favourites as they beat France in the 2015 European Championships and won the Four Nations last year. But with France being in their own backyard, they’ll definitely fancy their chances.
“We’ve got a strong squad going over there though, so we’re definitely not going to be an easy team to beat. We won the Celtic Cup back in April, so having matches so close to the World Cup gives us an advantage, especially when other nations haven’t played an international match since October.
“It also helps that a lot of the Welsh squad play for North Wales Crusaders, so most of us have been playing together all year. We see each other every week and are always gelling, when other nations only ever play together in internationals. So that’s a really big advantage for us.
“We play England, France and Australia in the group stages so it’s going to be really tough. But if we do well enough in the group then there’s no reason why we can’t reach that final on July 29th.”