By Daniel Holland

Thousands of fans descending on a buzzing Newcastle for the Rugby League World Cup later this year could give the city’s Covid-hit economy a massive £15m boost.

The tournament will kick off in 150 days’ time, with the opening match between England and Samoa being staged at St James’ Park on October 23.

It is hoped that the five-week World Cup will be among the first major sporting events in the country held at sell-out stadiums since the pandemic struck last year, if the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown continues on schedule.

As well as hosting the curtain-raiser at St James’, three group stage fixtures are being held at the Newcastle Falcons’ Kingston Park between Scotland, Fiji, and Italy.

The thought of safely being back in a packed stadium will be a tantalising prospect for rugby fans, while an influx of supporters should also offer a much-needed boost for city bars, restaurants, and other businesses that have struggled under lockdown restrictions.

City council leader Nick Forbes and Falcons managing director Mick Hogan got their hands on the Rugby League World Cup trophy in the city centre on Wednesday and both are optimistic about the tournament’s chances of going ahead as it was first envisioned when Newcastle was named among the host cities in 2019.

Coun Forbes said: “Major sporting events have always been a crucial part of putting Newcastle on the world stage.

“This one has even more significance because it is the first big event we will be hosting since the pandemic. The economic boost and the boost to the profile of the city will be so important.

“We know there is going to be a £15m economic impact and the sectors of the economy that will benefit most are the ones hardest hit by the pandemic – leisure, hospitality, sports and events.

“By working towards this event, we aren’t just making sure that Newcastle continues to have an international profile, but it is also going to be crucial to seeing many of these firms through a very difficult few months.”

The council leader added that he has “no doubt” that the World Cup will go ahead regardless of the Covid-19 situation, though the number of fans able to attend matches or travel from overseas to be here remains in doubt.

He added: “But every single game and the opening ceremony itself will be broadcast internationally. There might not be the same crowd in the same stadium, but millions of people will see Newcastle beamed all around the world and that publicity is fantastic for showcasing all the great things our city has to offer.”

Tickets went on sale last year and the tournament opener at St James’ Park is currently the second biggest seller, behind only the final at Old Trafford.

Kingston Park, meanwhile, is said to be on course to be the first stadium to sell out its fixtures, with Scotland’s two matches proving especially popular.

Newcastle has hosted a string of major rugby events in recent years, including the 2015 rugby union world cup, the Heineken Cup final in 2019, and rugby league’s Magic Weekend.

But preparations for this year’s tournament have been unlike anything else because of the pandemic’s devastating impact.

Mr Hogan, who is also the head of North East sales for the event, said: “Up until the last 12 months, no tournament ever has had to prepare under these circumstances. There is no manual you can look at, it is uncharted waters.

“But the team at the Rugby League World Cup has coped incredibly well under very trying circumstances.

“What has been great to see is that the public has responded and ticket sales across the tournament are incredibly strong and some of the strongest are here in the North East.”

Mr Hogan is hoping that the welcome sight of sell-out stadiums and a buzzing city could “turbocharge” the growth of rugby league in the city, particularly for the Newcastle Thunder team.

Asked whether he expects teams to be allowed to travel from countries like Australia to take part in the World Cup as planned, he added: “That has not been without challenge. But I am very confident that by the end of the year, with the way the vaccine programme is going and countries opening up, that we will see all the teams here and at full strength.

“What has been good to see is that sporting teams from a lot of the countries are now starting to confirm that they will be attending other major events around the world, so once you start to see that you gain confidence.

“We have 150 days to go, a long way to go yet. Things can change but they can change for the better as well, that is what we are hoping.”

Article by the Local Democracy Reporting Service