Former England captain James Graham says this year’s World Cup will be the best yet and believes there is no need to be apprehensive about travelling to England.
Graham, who has returned to Australia after finishing his playing career at St Helens last season, said conditions had rapidly improved in England with the vaccine roll-out and life was expected to be as close to normal as possible when the tournament starts on October 23.
With the Wallabies set to travel to Wales in November, along with the All Blacks and Fiji, and the semi-finals and final of the European Football Championship to be staged in London in July, Graham said it would be a missed opportunity for the code if the World Cup was postponed.
The 2017 tournament captured widespread interest due to the emergence of Tonga, who beat New Zealand and narrowly lost to England in a controversial semi-final in Hamilton.
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In 2019 Tonga beat Great Britain and Australia and Papua New Guinea also triumphed against the Lions. The recent offer by Matthew Johns, Andrew Johns and Sonny Bill Williams to coach Samoa has renewed excitement about the international game.
However, Graham is aware that some within the game have reservations about the tournament going ahead as scheduled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it was initially handled in England.
"When I am speaking to people there is a bit of a concern about the pandemic but I keep a pretty close eye on the happening in England and everything looks like it is on track," said Graham, who played 53 Tests for England and Great Britain.
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"There probably are reasons to be hesitant about going over to England but if everything remains on track England will be a completely safe place to be – on a par with where Australia is now.
"By the time the World Cup comes along there will be no laws in place around the coronavirus, the vaccine will be completely rolled out and there will be many sporting events that will have been held there that the organisers of the World Cup can learn from.
"I think it is hugely important that the World Cup goes ahead, not just for the game over there but for the international game moving forward.
"If we thought 2017 was a great World Cup this is going to be above and beyond that, and there is an opportunity for our game to showcase itself to the world.
"International rugby league is like that little secret that we all know, and if we are to get where I think rugby league should be as a global sport it is important that the World Cup happens."
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Restrictions in Britain will be eased next week and from June 21 all legal limits on social contact are set to be removed, with English Premier League clubs expected to be allowed 50 per cent capacity at stadiums in August.
World Cup organisers hope the tournament will be the first major sporting event in Britain with capacity crowds at matches and Graham, a former Bulldogs and Dragons prop, said the atmosphere would be like nothing most NRL players have experienced.
"When you talk about the international game the World Cup is the ultimate prize, and for me, the last three World Cup were amazing to be a part of,” he said.
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"The Kiwis shocked the world in 2008 by beating Australia in the final and that was incredible. Then 2013 had one of the best games of rugby league that I think we have ever seen in the semi-final at Wembley with Sam Burgess up against Sonny Bill Williams.
"And in 2017, that semi-final in New Zealand when England played Tonga is still the best atmosphere of any game that I have played in. But I believe this World Cup is going to be even better.
"We have got Jamaica playing, France is on the rise again and there is talk around some of the biggest names in the game coaching Samoa. It is a big 'if' but how good would that be. Imagine the impact on the Samoa team."