Rugby League chiefs are hoping Prince William will step into his brother’s shoes to become the face of the World Cup this year after Prince Harry was stripped of his royal patronages, The Telegraph can reveal.
The Duke of Sussex lost his role as patron of the Rugby Football League (RFL) and Rugby Football Union after he and his wife Meghan confirmed they were leaving royal life for good.
Buckingham Palace said their patronages would revert to the Queen before being redistributed among other working royals.
The Duke of Sussex had been “front and centre” of plans for the RFL World Cup taking place across the north of England in October and November and hosted the draw for the tournament at Buckingham Palace in January.
It is now understood the RFL is hoping Prince William will be given the role of patron as a way of ensuring the sport maintains a high profile at a time when the World Cup is being hosted by the nation (and region) that gave birth to the sport.
Many of the matches will be taking place in cities not usually associated with international events, and the tournament will also be the first mass participation spectator event following the hoped-for lifting of lock down.
A source close to senior figures at the RFL told The Telegraph: “The World Cup is going to take place in the north of England, which is very significant at this time and very important for the royal household to acknowledge and get behind, particularly as it will be happening in many towns where major events are not usually held, such as St Helens, Doncaster and Hull.
“The Duke of Sussex was a high profile figure who embraced the World Cup and we hope the next appointment will be a continuation of that.”
Prince William is thought to be a good match for the role of RFL patron. He worked with the league’s current chair, Simon Johnson, when Mr Johnson was director of corporate affairs and chief operating officer at the Football Association, where the Duke has held the role of president since 2006.
Mr Johnson has previously praised the Duke’s work, along with the commitment and enthusiasm Prince William brings to all his public roles.
Shortly before Prince William made the first official Royal visit to Israel in 2018, Mr Johnson, who was chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council at the time, said: “Having worked closely with the Duke during my time at the FA, I know that he will be fascinated and interested and will make a lasting impression on all those he meets.”
Another source said: “There is an existing relationship.”
Prince William is vice-patron of the Welsh Rugby Union and although the two sports of league and union are completely separate he will still want to tread sensitively if he is given the patronage of the RFL.
He will also not want any suggestion that he is seeking to benefit from his brother’s withdrawal from Royal life, particularly following reports of recent tension between the two over the Duke’s relationship with his Meghan.
But any such appointment would provide a welcome boost for the sport of rugby league, which had been “blindsided” by the removal of Prince Harry’s patronage last week.
An RFL source told the Telegraph: “There will be a lot of disruption. The World Cup is in autumn and Prince Harry was expected to be front and centre of that.
“There have been rumours that he could have some role, that there could be some middle ground, but whether that is feasible I don’t know.
“We were completely blindsided by the news to be honest. We were very keen to keep Prince Harry, he’s been fantastic.”
The profile of rugby league has grown in recent years, with hopes being raised that England will perform well at the World Cup. Public attention has also been drawn to the sport through the fight of former Leeds Rhinos scrum-half Rob Burrow against motor neurone disease.
His teammate Kevin Sinfield raised more than £2.7 million to fund the work of the Motor Neurone Disease Association by running seven marathons in seven days last December.
The RFL said it would be for The Queen to decide who should take over from Prince Harry as its patron.
“We’re honoured that we should have anybody from the royal family as our patron and look forward to hearing from Her Majesty about who it might be,” it said.
The Palace said on Friday that it was not possible for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to continue “with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service” and that their patronages will go to working royals. These would be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Earl and Countess of Wessex and the Princess Royal.
There is growing speculation as to which of the five will replace the Duchess of Sussex as patron of the National Theatre.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have made it known they are now keen to move on to the next stage of their lives in the United States, including the broadcast of a “wide-ranging” and “intimate” interview with Oprah Winfrey in which they reveal all about their decision to step away from the Royal Family. They have also signed deals with Spotify and Netflix.
A source close to the Sussexes said: “They just want to move on from this now and get on with their own thing.
“They are focused on what’s coming up. They’re extremely busy and there’s plenty to come in both the short and long term.
“The Oprah interview will obviously be broadcast in a couple of weeks and there’s a lot of focus on that. But where the events of the last couple of days are concerned, they now just want to move on and put it behind them.”
Hearing of the Sussexes desire to move on and put the “Megxit” tensions behind them, one royal aide joked: “At last we’ve found common ground.”