Rugby league's hopes of capitalising on the success of the World Cup have received a significant boost after the RLIF was granted observer status by the Global Association of International Sports Federations.
The decision, which comes after years of lobbying and campaigning the GAISF, formerly known as Sport Accord, to overcome opposition from rugby union, ensures rugby league is an officially recognised sport around the world and will enable the game to access government funding.
This will have an impact in places such as South Africa and the Middle East, where rugby union officials have aggressively opposed the growth of rugby league.
A South African consortium was among the leading bidders for the 2017 World Cup but without recognition from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, there would have been no government funding and little corporate support.
In 2015, the president of the Rugby League Commission in the UAE detained in a Dubai prison for “managing a sporting body which is not registered and therefore not recognised by the relevant government authority”.
The number of teams in the 2021 World Cup has been increased from 14 to 16, with one place reserved for a Middle East-Africa qualifier and another for the winner of an inter-continental play-off.
The RLIF has 71 member nations but a previous attempt to gain membership of GAISF was blocked in April 2016 after World Rugby sent a letter opposing the application. Further bids later that year and in 2017 were also unsuccessful.
The RLIF’s application was rejected last October after rugby union officials pointed out the existence of the rebel World Rugby League, formed by a banned Greek administrator, and raised questions about which body was responsible for running the game.
This prompted Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group to write to GAISF calling for the RLIF’s inclusion and the chair, Judith Cummins, this week welcomed the decision.
“This is an important decision, which will allow the sport to further develop in countries around the world, and especially where rugby league has struggled to secure government recognition,” she said.
“I look forward to further growth in our sport across the world in the coming years.”
Observer status is the first step towards full membership and gives the RLIF the right to attend the GAISF General Assembly and to take advantage of the GAISF network to grow and develop.
RLIF chief executive, David Collier, welcomed the recognition.
“We would like to thank the GAISF Council for their grant of Observer status for Rugby League, it will have a positive impact on the RLIF Membership around the globe,” Collier said.
“We currently have 71 member nations who will all now be able to progress relationships with their own national government and sports organisations. We look forward to taking up our position playing our part at the earliest opportunity.
"We have seen continued and sustained growth in the membership of the RLIF over the past eight years and, built upon the interest generated by RLWC2017 in the men’s, women’s and wheelchair formats, we expect to see that growth carry on.”