With Prince Harry back on the job in his role as rugby league patron, Canada received a decent draw Thursday for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Harry took part in the draw at Buckingham Palace in his first engagement since news broke that he and wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, plan to step back from their royal duties and spend time in Canada.
The fifth-ranked Canadian women landed in Group A with host England (No. 3), Papua New Guinea (No. 4) and Brazil (No. 13), escaping former champion New Zealand (No. 2), which went into Pool B alongside title-holder Australia (No. 1), France (No. 6) and the Cook Islands (No. 7).
Canada coach Mike Castle was happy with the draw.
"Avoiding New Zealand and Australia as the two top nations will certainly help our cause," he said in an email from his native Australia. "It was probably the best scenario for us if you look at where everyone sits in the world rankings."
England and Australia were the seeded teams for the draw. The top two in each pool advance to the semifinals of the competition. New Zealand won the first three editions of the tournament and was runner-up to Australia in 2013 and '17.
The Rugby League World Cup, which includes men's, women's and wheelchair competitions, runs Oct. 23 to Nov. 27, 2021.
At the 2017 women's tournament in Australia, a fledgling Canada Ravens side lost 50-4 to New Zealand before beating Papua New Guinea 22-8 for its first ever international win. The Canadian women finished the pool stage with an 88-0 loss to Australia. They were then beaten again, 58-6, by Australia in the semifinals.
Castle is taking nothing for granted in 2021.
"We know England and PNG will present a huge challenge for us," he said. "Especially with England being the host nation, and having a quality domestic competition. PNG beat England in Port Moresby recently too so they've come on leaps and bounds since the last (meeting) at the 2017 World Cup.
"We really don't know what to expect from Brazil being the debutantes, but I know they have some great people overseeing their development, so I would expect them to be well up to the challenge too."
The Duke of Sussex has been involved in the sport as a patron of the Rugby Football League since December 2016 when he succeeded the Queen, who had held the role for 64 years.
Harry was assisted by former England rugby union/league star Jason Robinson and Dame Katherine Grainger, a former Olympic champion rower and current chair of UK Sport.
"It's an honour to be standing next to two sporting legends," he said.
Harry, the driving force behind the Invictus Games, also talked about the power of sport before pulling balls out of a pot to kick off the draw.
"Whether it's rugby league or sport in general, given the opportunity it needs to be in everybody's life, if possible," he said.
Toronto Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott, a former England and Britain international who coached the U.S. at the 2017 World Cup, praised Harry for helping boost his sport.
"I like the guy. Everything I know about him, he doesn't conform. And I like people who don't conform," he said from England where the Wolfpack are holding their training camp.
"It's a great piece of profile for us ... Credit to him and respect to him for giving up his time. He's obviously in high demand media-wise at the moment," McDermott added with a chuckle. "He's taken time out from all of that and done the draw for us, which is great."
Canada was represented at the draw by Mandy Marchak, a 35-year-old international from Winnipeg, who now calls Victoria home. Marchak captained Canada at the 2017 tournament, which represented her sixth World Cup. She also competed at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 rugby union World Cups and the 2009 and '13 Sevens World Cup.
Sixteen teams will compete for the men's title.
Group A features England, Samoa, France and Greece while Group B consists of defending champion Australia, Fiji, Scotland and Italy. Group C is made up of New Zealand, Lebanon, Jamaica and Ireland while Group D is Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Wales and the Cook Islands.
The top two in each group advance to the quarterfinals. England will play Samoa in the opening match of the tournament at St James' Park in Newcastle on Oct. 23.
The eight quarterfinalists from the 2017 tournament qualified automatically with the other eight berths decided in regional qualifying. Jamaica won the North American men's qualifier, which also featured Canada, Chile and the U.S. The runner-up Americans then lost a playoff to the Cook Islands.
Eight teams, including defending champion France, will contest the wheelchair tournament.
France is in Group B with Wales, Scotland and the U.S. Group A is made up of England, Australia, Spain and Norway.
A rugby league team is made up of 13 players with four on the bench. Each team is only allowed six tackles (plays) before the ball changes hands. A try is worth four points and a conversion two.
Rugby union teams are made up of 15 starters with eight substitutes. Play is more continuous and a try is worth five points and a conversion two.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2020.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter