Mick Hogan grew up in one of rugby league’s heartlands of Leigh, but during his career he has become more associated with the sport in the north-east of England.
From playing and later coaching at amateur level after moving to the region to study at Newcastle Polytechnic, via being appointed as the RFL’s development officer for the region, Hogan is now playing a part in bringing the Rugby League World Cup to his adopted home city.
Alongside being managing director of League One side Newcastle Thunder, he is serving as head of sales for next year’s tournament, which kicks off with England hosting Samoa at St James’ Park.
RLWC 2021 north-east fixtures
|England vs Samoa||St James’ Park||Oct 23|
|Scotland vs Italy||Kingston Park||Oct 24|
|Fiji vs Italy||Kingston Park||Oct 30|
|Fiji vs Scotland||Kingston Park||Nov 6|
|Tonga vs Cook Islands||Riverside Stadium||Nov 7|
The region will host four other group-stage matches during the men’s tournament too, including breaking new ground by taking the clash between the Cook Islands and Tonga to Middlesbrough, and Hogan could not be happier from the point of view of both his club and the sport as a whole.
“It’s fantastic news,” Hogan told Sky Sports. “We have a huge opportunity on the back of the Rugby League World Cup opening up in Newcastle, both for the Thunder and the community game, and hopefully to get even more bigger rugby events into Newcastle.
“We knew the final would probably end up at Old Trafford and what a great venue that is for the final, but the next one we wanted was the opening game and we managed to get that, and subsequently Kingston Park Stadium has been handed three games.
“We’ve got a game on the Sunday as well [Scotland against Italy at Kingston Park], so what a fantastic opening weekend for the city, the Thunder and, we think, for rugby league.”
In a sporting sense, the region and Newcastle particularly are more widely associated with football, although St James’ Park has been a regular and popular host for Super League’s Magic Weekend which was due to return there in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Rugby league has a long-established presence in the north-east at amateur level though, with 14 community clubs in the regional competition at present stretching from Alnwick Bears in Northumberland to Catterick Crusaders in North Yorkshire.
Around 10 per cent of the tickets which have been sold for the tournament so far have been to fans in Newcastle and mostly for the matches in that locality, with a further 13 per cent of those sales coming from Middlesbrough.
Tournament customer director Terri Lynam is pleased with the interest shown in the World Cup in an area not considered a rugby league stronghold, especially given there is still uncertainty around how much life will be back to normal this time next year on the back of the pandemic.
With rugby league, one thing is the community element. It’s the fact you go with your family or you watch it with your dad like I did back home, and that is the thing you get no matter whether you’re in your house or at a stadium.
“We’ve been bold and brave, which is one of our values,” Lynam told Sky Sports. “It’s not easy to sell tickets in the middle of a pandemic, let’s be honest, but we’ve committed to it and we’re really positive about it.
“I think the commitment we’ve seen from our fans in parting with their money at this point in time has vindicated our decision to do that.
“We keep planning, we keep on making sure we’re in close contact with the government about what the guidelines are, but we’re lucky in that our tournament is not until the end of next year so it gives us a lot of road to plan on.”
Taking a game to Middlesbrough and trying to sell out the 34,742-capacity Riverside Stadium perhaps sums up that bold and brave approach, although there could hardly be a better match to attract curious fans than the clash between emerging force Tonga and a Cook Islands team which caught the eye with some scintillating play at last year’s World Cup Nines.
Teeside already has one community club in Yarm Wolves, with Hartlepool Hurricanes slightly further north as well, and Hogan is keen for the Thunder to help expand rugby league’s footprint in the area as part of the tournament’s legacy.
“We very much see ourselves as a regional club,” Hogan said. “So, when we do our development work, we go from the Scottish border right down to North Yorkshire.
“Wouldn’t it be great post-tournament to see a new community club in Middlesbrough and maybe Darlington, where the Cook Islands are training?
“There are lots of opportunities for the sport down there and everybody at Newcastle Thunder will be doing everything we can to support it.
“We’ve been delivered five unbelievable games to the north-east. We probably couldn’t have picked a better set of games, so if this doesn’t generate considerable interest across the region, I fail to see what would.”
There is more going on in the north-east than just the games themselves and Lynam, who has previously worked on the Olympic and Commonwealth Games plus the 2015 Rugby World Cup, is involved with helping to get funding in place for fanzones and festivals in place.
Making the tournament as accessible and enjoyable for spectators, whether die-hard rugby league supporters or newcomers, is at the heart of that and as someone who grew up watching the sport in Australia she if fully aware of the importance of generating a community feel to the World Cup.
“With rugby league, one thing is the community element,” Lynam said. “It’s the fact you go with your family or you watch it with your dad like I did back home, and that is the thing you get no matter whether you’re in your house or at a stadium.
“Everyone is welcome, everyone stands arm in arm, you don’t have any segregation. You could be standing next to someone from any of the great nations in our tournament and you feel part of it.”