South Sydney coaching guru Wayne Bennett helped new IRL chair Troy Grant put forward a proposal to the French government which could lead to France hosting the 2025 World Cup.
Bennett went with Grant to a meeting with French consul-general Anne Boillon last year in Sydney to discuss the possibility of the World Cup being in France 12 months after the 2024 Paris Olympics and two years after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The idea also has the backing of Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson, Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly and a number of other influential people in the game, including former Wallabies coach Michael Chieka, who will coach Lebanon at the end-of-season World Cup and has strong ties to France.
Grant, who joined the IRL early last year as one of three independent directors, received approval from the board before officially being announced as the new chair of the organisation on Tuesday to formally table a bid for France to host the 2025 World Cup.
He is also working on a 10-year international calendar to be released later this year that will be a giant step forward for the IRL.
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“In the past 12 months I have talked to a lot of key individuals in the game, like Wayne Bennett, Michael Maguire, Trent Robinson, Blake Solly, Shane Richardson, James Graham and other players, as well, about what they wanted out of the international game and their views,” Grant said.
“Every one of them said ‘we must focus on France’ or ‘we need to re-build France’ so I took a proposal to the consul general of France to garner interest and to pitch to them about hosting a trifecta of world events given that the Rugby World Cup is there in 2023 and the Paris Olympics are in 2024.
“Wayne went with me to the first meeting with France ... to meet the consul general and he has been terrific along the way.”
In the past, the hosting rights for the World Cup have put out for tender, which has invariably meant the tournament has alternated between Australia and England since the first tournament in France in 1954.
However, Grant used the contacts he developed as a former NSW deputy premier to make an approach to the French consul-general and the response was positive.
“There is a really strong French-Australia business council here and I am relying on those networks and the strong relationships I developed in government to help expedite opportunities for rugby league,” Grant said.
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“Anne Boillon has been a terrific supporter and they [France] have been immediately interested so I got board approval just a few weeks ago to move away from the bidding process and do a direct approach on a strategic basis to the French government.
“We got the consent of the French national body at the same time. I am really impressed by [new French Federation president] Luc Lacoste and his leadership, so I can see France being on the up and up. It is our job to support them as they rise again.
“In a couple of weeks we will have a document ready for the French governing body to go to the French government to see what is possible and whether France is a viable option.”
ARLC, clubs engaged
The approach to France is an example of Grant’s can-do attitude and his focus on building relationships with key stakeholders to remove obstacles to growing the international game.
A member of the NRL’s innovation committee, Grant worked alongside ARLC chairman Peter V’landys and Project Apollo chairman Wayne Pearce to enable the Telstra Premiership to resume with barely a hitch after the competition was suspended last March due to COVID-19.
“I chewed Ricky Stuart’s ear for a while a couple of weeks ago while I was in Canberra, I have sat down with Mal Meninga to get his views and Michael Maguire and I have spent time talking,” Grant said.
“Trent Robinson has been fabulously supportive, particularly with the French pitch and the role he is taking as [France] coaching director is just a fabulous opportunity for France.
“I bought James Graham a coffee and got some really great advice because you need the players’ perspective about what appeals and draws them to the international game. I have asked the clubs, coaches and players how much international football they want to play.
“I have developed a strong relationship with a lot of CEOs over the last 12 months which has been helpful and the ARL through the leadership of Peter V’landys and represented by Wayne Pearce, Peter Beattie for Asia-Pacific and Andrew Abdo, have been more engaged with the international game from a holistic basis in the last 12 months than the ARL has been for a long time.”
There are 42 countries with IRL world rankings and more than 60 who are full members or affiliate members of the IRL or have observer status.
However, international matches and tournaments have largely been organised from year to year or even in a much shorter time frame.
Grant is overseeing a 10-year international calendar, which will be released before the World Cup in England.
“When I tell people that that rugby league is played in over 65 countries they are shocked by that,” he said.
“There has been an absence of a clear and coherent calendar of events that shows a pathway to our ultimate prize in the World Cup.
“We [the IRL] were established in 1927, our first World Cup was in 1954 and yet cricket and rugby, whose first World Cups weren’t until 1975 and 1987, have gone leaps and bounds ahead of us.
Wayne went with me to the first meeting with France. He went with me to meet the consul general and he has been terrific along the wayIRL chair Troy Grant
“The fundamental thing we have trouble with is the release of players because the value proposition hasn’t been there and there hasn’t been credibility in the contest.
“The competition has to have meaning, you want to be able to lay the basis for rivalries to grow and it is all really about passion.
“The No.1 priority now is finalising our 10-year calendar. It will be the single biggest step forward for the IRL for a long, long time.
“It has to economically stack up, you can’t just hold these events without working out how it is being paid for.”
Lifelong league supporter
Grant has been involved in rugby league for most of his life, and has played, coached and refereed.
His great grandfather Francis Kennedy Swan - a 1912 premiership winner for Maitland Districts - died after rupturing his spleen during a game in 1913.
Grant began his playing career with the Kootingal-Moonbi Roosters in the NSW Group 4 competition and made his first-grade debut at 18 before turning to coaching and refereeing after knee injures ended his career.
He was a strong supporter of the game during his political career and joined the IRL board with fellow independent directors Emma Young, who was on the organising committee for the London Olympics, and NZ Cricket chairman Greg Barclay.
Barclay was elected IRL chairman last January but his elevation to ICC chairman led to Grant taking over the role. Barclay will remain on the IRL board until the end of the year.
“Greg has done a really good job in leading the organisation through a difficult time,” Grant said. “We have far more disciplines in the way we run our finances and operations, and it is a lot more professional.
“He has been terrific and will do a great job at the ICC but Greg is a passionate rugby league man and he will still make a contribution to rugby league.”