Like a drug addict I need a fix! Only the drug of my choice isn’t harmful, even if it is addictive. Rugby League!
It’s been only seven weeks since the World Cup Final was played before that enormous crowd at Old Trafford … and two months since the most thrilling finish to a Rugby League match in years, when the Kiwis pulled off the seemingly impossible at Wembley.
But I can’t wait for the 2014 season to get underway. The trials start in a three weeks time. You folk in Old Blighty call them friendlies, but there is never anything friendly about a Rugby League match.
My beloved Wests Tigers, with the return from Wigan of Pat Richards to help mentor a host of exciting youngsters, will take on a revitalised Penrith Panthers.
A week later the Warriors of both hemispheres will clash before Wigan’s World Club Challenge against the Roosters on February 22.
On the same day, Gareth Widdop will line up for his new club, the Dragons, in the Charity Shield against his World Cup team-mates, the Rabbitohs’ Burgess brothers.
It will be held at WIN Stadium, because the former Olympic Stadium at Homebush is booked out for an Eminem concert. Shame, shame, shame! Fancy a pop group being given preference to the Greatest Game of All.
At least the Charity Shield will be a twilight fixture to ensure television couch-lizards can watch both League encounters.
The start of the new season got me thinking back to before the days of television in Australia. Back 60 years in fact to when a young Malcolm Andrews was just knee-high to a grasshopper. What a great year it was in 1954!
That was when the then world record 102,569 fans turned up at Odsal to see Warrington beat Halifax 8-4 in the Challenge Cup Final replay. At least that was the official attendance. As many observers have since noted, there were almost certainly at least 10,000 more jammed into the stadium.
It was also the year of the first World Cup – some 33 years before the Rah-Rahs decided to get in on the act and steal the name Rugby World Cup. The Rugby League authorities apparently had the title copyrighted in 1954, but never took legal action against the kick-and-clap folk to protect that copyright.
A team of youngsters from Britain, with a couple of experienced hard-heads, won that inaugural Cup. They are still waiting for recognition from Buckingham Palace, who ignored their efforts but threw handfuls of gongs at the English union players when they won their title almost half-a-century after the League lads.
Wouldn’t it be a great gesture to belatedly recognise the survivors in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours?
My old schoolboy hero Harry Wells, who is approaching his 82nd birthday, explained what happened to the Aussies who only a few months earlier had beaten the British Lions in the Ashes series in Australia.
France had kicked off the World Cup on Saturday, October 30, 1954 with a 22-13 victory over New Zealand at the Parc de Princes in Paris. The following day, Great Britain beat Australia 28-13 at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. Wells scored two of Australia’s three tries.
“We had a really good side – at least, on paper we had a top side,” Wells explained.
“But, quite frankly, we had no chance of winning from the moment the dates for the World Cup were decided.
“I’m not making excuses. But no matter how good a side may be – it can’t win without sufficient lead-up games in which the players can acquire match fitness.
“The Sydney Grand Final had been played six weeks earlier and only two of our players, the Souths pair of Clive Churchill and Ian Moir, had played in that game.
“Most of us hadn’t played for at least two months.
“No matter how hard you train, you still have to play games to reach proper fitness. That was the case 50 years ago, and it’s still the case today.
“The Poms, who won that World Cup, were in their regular season, as were the French. They had all had a club match the week before they took us on. We were right behind the eight-ball.”
In Wells’ case, he had been playing in the Wollongong competition, a virtual reserve-grade when compared with the Sydney Premiership or the English Championship.
“You know, that’s why the best form of my career was always on the Kangaroo tours of England,” he explains.
“You would sometimes play three games in a week. That quickly gets you into top fitness. And I liked the heavy pitches of England.
“On Kangaroo tours you would play eight or nine games against club sides before the First Test. So when you went in against the English players you were at the peak of your condition.”
And don’t talk to Wells about money.
He recalled the 1953 Tour of New Zealand. For the three Tests against the Kiwis in New Zealand he got nothing. Zilch, zero, not a brass razoo. The ARL picked up the expenses for food and accommodation, and that was regarded as sufficient recompense.
“But I’m not complaining … playing for your country is an honour,” the veteran of 29 Tests explained.
“Money can’t buy the prize of a green and gold jumper.”
“I made lifetime friends in England including the likes of Dave Valentine [skipper of the 1954 World Cup side], Jim Challinor, Ike Southward, Ken Traill, Alex Murphy and, the greatest of all, the family of Tom Pearce, an English policeman I met in Warrington.
“That’s worth more than a million-dollar contract, isn’t it?”
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