Tom uses Rugby World Cup to Try and help literacy

Author Tom Palmer at The Shay Stadium, Halifax, with What's a Bear to Wear, the first of three Try Reading children's books he wrote for theRugby League World Cup
Author Tom Palmer at The Shay Stadium, Halifax, with What's a Bear to Wear, the first of three Try Reading children's books he wrote for theRugby League World Cup

From Wales to Wembley, via Ireland and France, an upper Calder Valley author has been on his travels to boost literacy during the Rugby League World Cup.

Tom Palmer, of Todmorden, attended several matches at the tournament as part of the Try Reading campaign, a project funded by Arts Council England to encourage young people to read and write more.

His schedule saw him witness the opening day of the world cup in Cardiff and England’s agonising last minute defeat in the semi-final, blogging about his adventures along the way.

“I think using a sporting tournament to promote reading to families and children in particular is a really positive thing to do,” he said.

“I went around a lot of schools and used the excitement of the Rugby League World Cup to get the kids interested in reading.

“It was really good work, really positive.”

Tom also went to Limerick to watch Ireland play Australia and to Avignon for the France v New Zealand match.

“I like to visit places as part of my job,” he said.

“It enables me to describe things better.

“If you are blogging about sport you have to find something else to write about.

“Going to these places, I was able to find out what rugby is like there and talk to fans in those countries to see what they think about it.

“It allowed me to make my blog a bit more interesting.

“When I was in Ireland I also met gaelic football and rugby union fans. I tried to meet fans of different sports to find out what they made of it. I like to create a narrative in my blog.

“My favourite bit was definitely going to the France v New Zealand game in Avignon with my wife and daughter.

“There was no roof on the stands. Watching the Haka and the Marseillaise under the black sky with the floodlights on was fantastic.

“The best stadium was the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

“There’s something magical about it. It sent tingles down my spine.”

Earlier in the year, Tom was commissioned to write a series of books leading up to the world cup.

He visited schools, libraries and other venues - including The Shay in Halifax - to promote the books and his rugby reading game.

He was really impressed by the support he received from players, who often attended his sessions.

“One of the great highlights of the Try Reading campaign was meeting Leeds Rhinos player Jamie Jones-Buchanan,” he said.

“I meet a lot of sportspeople in my job. They usually come in, do their bit, answer a few questions and leave.

“But he collared me at the end and was asking me about my job, reading and writing.

“He was genuinely interested. I was really impressed with him.”

The end of the tournament, which was won by Australia in front of a world record crowd at Old Trafford in Manchester, has led to debate about what the legacy will be for rugby league in the UK.

“I think the world cup will get kids involved in the sport,” Tom said.

“There were lots of record crowds. The way the tournament was supported by sports fans was really special.

“It was great that so many people got behind it, including people who were not rugby league fans before.

“I think it has brought rugby league to the national audience.

“But, with the exception of the BBC, I don’t think the national media embraced it as well as they could.

“If you compare the coverage the world cup got in the national papers with the rugby union autumn internationals, union was getting double page spreads whereas league only got a small piece.

“But I think the regional media made up for that.

“I’ve spent the last few months trying to get children into reading through rugby. But what it’s done for me is get me into rugby through reading.

“Although I will always be a football fan mainly, I will probably go and watch a few more rugby matches.

“It’s widened my sporting interest.”

He admits to being one of the nearly 70,000 spectators at Wembley who were “gutted” by England’s semi-final defeat - arguably the best match of the compeition - but feels England will always face an uphill battle to become world champions.

“Rugby league in Australia and New Zealand has so much more money in it,” he said. “It’s a much bigger sport over there and media support is better. Rugby league over there is also attracting players from this country, which is making our game weaker.”

Tom has now switched codes and is working on a rugby union trilogy set in England, France and New Zealand.

“I’m really enjoying it,” he said. “Both rugby league and union are much more open to outsiders and accessible than other sports.

“The journalists, players and clubs have been so open and friendly about it.” Tom, a lifelong Leeds United fan, is returning to his football writing roots next summer when he embarks on a project with the National Literacy Trust to promote reading in schools during the world cup.

“I’m writing an adventure story set in Brazil,” he said.

“It will be an episodic story written every day after the matches.

“I’ll also be doing daily writing exercises based on what’s happened during each day. I intend to do the same with the rugby union world cup in two years’ time.”

And what does he make of England’s chances of following in the footsteps of the heroes of 1966?

“England’s chances are poor,” he said. “I think we could get out of the group but we won’t beat any of the big teams. We don’t have the players to achieve that at the moment.”