October 3, 2018
What is the thinking behind the bid to bring the Rugby League World Cup to Newcastle in 2021?
There are lots of different reasons why Newcastle would be a good fit. We’ve hosted the game’s Magic Weekend at St. James’ Park for four years in a row, and that has been brilliant for the city.
A huge percentage of the crowd have been local people, and I think if you turned the clock back five years, before we started hosting the Magic Weekend, a lot of people in the region wouldn’t have ever been to a rugby league game.
People have got behind the event and really enjoyed it – the atmosphere around the town is fantastic and it brings visitors from across the North. We’re keen to attract people to the city and this tournament would do that.
We’ve had a real drive on events, and we want to see the city on an international stage.
Outside of the obvious economic benefits, are there any parallels that make Newcastle the ideal destination for the tournament?
The values of the city, and the way we envisage the future of the city, fit really well with the sport of rugby league. It’s about inclusion, and the organisers are just as keen on the game for women and for people with disabilities as they are on the men’s game.
They are running all three competitions together and they’re keen on legacy.
Is legacy a big priority for the city?
In everything that we do, we want to make sure there’s an ongoing benefit for the residents of Newcastle, be that more kids becoming aware of rugby league, more people trying a different sport or people becoming inspired to get fit and get moving.
We want to provide an amazing experience for everyone who visits the city, but we also have to ask ‘how does this benefit not just the businesses in town, but also our communities out in places like Lemington, Walker and Elswick?’
How refreshing is it to see sports such as rugby union and rugby league thriving in a region so traditionally entrenched in football?
St. James’ Park is a beacon to the people of this city, and the stadium is full week in, week out, regardless of what the weather is like and regardless of how Newcastle United are doing and what league they’re in.
I don’t think anyone would ever look to change that, but having a rugby union side doing as well as the Falcons adds another dimension to our sporting armoury, and that can only be a positive thing.
Newcastle Falcons completely exceeded expectations last season, and their popularity was clear to see when they played Northampton Saints at St. James’ Park in March in front of over 30,000.
Our values as a city are synonymous with the values that rugby has, and I’d like to see that continue and both codes of the game progress here.
As a Geordie yourself, how would you describe the city’s relationship with sport?
The people of the North East love sport – that’s not a secret. If you ask groups of three across the city if they’ve ran the Great North Run, at least one of them will say yes.
There is a pride involved in the place as well as an intrinsic relationship between this region and sport.
There’s a reason Geordies have a warm, friendly reputation and part of that is because they’re proud of their city and we enjoy welcoming others and showing off where they come from.
Does it sadden you to see the apparent disconnect between fans of Newcastle United and the club’s owner at the moment?
Newcastle United are a big business, but what they also are is a huge part of the heart and soul of the city. What the fans want more than anything is to see their team succeed and to enjoy going to the games.
The people of this city feel like they have an ownership of the club, and they’ll always make that known. People here will always tell you want they think, and in that regard I think it’s prudent to listen.
How would you describe your relationship with the club?
As a council, our relationship with the club is getting better and better. We’re working together to bring events to St. James’ Park and to use the very unique benefit of having a city centre stadium with an amazing backdrop that is easy to get to.
It’s dawning on us just how massive the 2019 European Rugby Champions and Challenge Cup finals will be next May, and we couldn’t do any of that without Newcastle United.
Talk me through some of the challenges that arise when a bid such as the Rugby League World Cup is first put forward…
We have a job to do, and that is to show this city in its best light. We’re very aware of the historic grumble that it’s ‘grim up North’, and our job is to prove that perception to be 100 per cent untrue.
It seems crazy in 2018, but that misconception still exists.
Another challenge is that we’re a Labour-led Northern city, and financially it is very difficult for us. We have significant and severe budget challenges, and we try to find the balance between keeping our city a clean and safe place to live and leveraging the kind of things that will enable it to grow.
How do you work around those constraints?
Some of the major competitions we’d love to bring to the city are just not financially viable, so we have to think outside the box and look at ways other than throwing cash at them.
What that has produced is a lot of partnerships. To make things happen we work alongside the Falcons, the Eagles and, of course, Newcastle United. We try to transcend the cash by making these connections.