Rugby League is beginning its most important year since the sport was revolutionised through the switch to a summer competition 18 years ago, one crucial to its chances of expanding with lasting impact beyond its traditional boundaries, according to the Rugby Football League's chief executive, Nigel Wood.
With England to host its first World Cup since 2000 this autumn and the expansion southwards of the League's lower tiers, 2013 represents a chance for the sport to "put on our best frock," said Wood ahead of the Super League season.
Wood insisted an occupancy rate of over 80 per cent is achievable across the 21 World Cup venues – ranging from the 10,000-capacity Derwent Park in Workington to Wembley and the Millennium Stadium. "It's a huge year, our most significant year since the decision to move the season in 1996 and start Super League," said Wood today. "For a sport that doesn't get the national attention as much as some other ones this gives us the chance to put on our best frock and say look this is a terrific sport played by great athletes that provides great entertainment. We mustn't let this opportunity slip through our fingers."
The target for the tournament is to sell 500,000 tickets – nearly double the number when the World Cup was last here – but it is a high occupancy rate that is crucial given the damaging impression wide-open spaces within grounds would make.
"We need to see north of 80 per cent," said Wood. "We are very conscious of the fact that we present ourselves as best we can. I don't see any reason why [we can't achieve that]."
Hemel, Oxford and Gloucester will all make their debuts in Championship 1 this season. It is the latest attempt by the governing body to broaden its appeal southwards but comes off the back of a £10m cut in grass-roots funding for the sport from Sport England. It is also in the middle of a battle to save Super League Salford from being wound-up and follows Bradford's financial struggle to stay afloat, but Wood insisted it is the right time to look to expand, claiming the RFL will enjoy record revenues this year.
"Our competition framework will look very different in 2015 than it will in 2013 because we will have populated more with clubs away from the heartland," he said. "We are not going to circle the wagons. We are going to make it available."
Widnes: We can rescue Hock
The Widnes coach, Denis Betts, is confident he can revive the career of controversial England back-row Gareth Hock. The 29-year-old joined the Vikings on a season-long loan after Wigan revealed he had effectively walked out on them. "I've worked with him," Betts said. "I know his strengths and weaknesses. People here can help get the best out of him."