DOUBTS about rugby league’s ability to succeed on the world stage were quickly extinguished over the first weekend of the Rugby League World Cup, with huge audiences tuning in to get their fix of footy.
While international rugby league has been maligned for a long time, as it lived in the shadow of the behemoth that is State of Origin, the 2017 World Cup being hosted in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea seems to have caught the public’s attention.
With new broadcaster Channel 7 putting their toe in the rugby league water with the World Cup, the ratings figures were always going to be interesting, given the results could dictate whether Seven makes a play for NRL or Origin rights down the track.
Network chiefs must have woken this morning thinking their investment was worthwhile, with the World Cup opener between Australia and England drawing an incredible 1.402 million views across the country for Seven.
This made the Kangaroos’ 18-4 win over the Poms in Melbourne the highest-rating league game this year outside of Origin and the NRL grand final.
A figure like 1.402 million would be impressive on its own, but it borders on amazing when you stack it up against the A-League soccer clash between Sydney and Perth, which was in direct competition with the league game, and only drew 56,000 viewers to Fox Sports.
Rugby league’s rating success carried on into Saturday, with three matches played in three countries all drawing impressive figures.
Papua New Guinea’s opening game against Wales was watched by 130,000 people in Australia, the clash between the Kiwis and Samoa drew 249,000, while the game in Townsville between Fiji and the USA was watched by 245,000 viewers on Seven.
By way of comparison, rugby union hosted a traditional clash between the Wallabies and the Barbarians on the same day, with the game hosted in simulcast between Channel 10 and Fox Sports.
The Wallabies game drew 57,000 viewers on Fox, and another 97,000 on Ten for a total audience of 154,000.
The two A-League matches on Saturday between Brisbane and Wellington (46,000) and Adelaide and Melbourne City (75,000) were not even in the same ratings ballpark as rugby league.
The television ratings will be a huge shot in the arm for the event’s organisers, as was the standard of the matches with some entertaining footy being played even by the minnow nations.
Australia were rusty but solid enough to get past Wayne Bennett’s England team, while PNG, New Zealand and Fiji all produced predictably comfortable wins.
Ireland produced the first real surprise of the competition, knocking over a star-studded Italy 36-12 at Barlow Park in Cairns, while Lebanon scored their first ever World Cup win when they beat France 29-18 in an entertaining game in Canberra.