“...BUT will enthusiasm for the game last beyond the tournament?”
So asked Katherine Downes in a BBC sports feature on the eve of the Rugby League World Cup Final. Of course my selected quote was preceded by a positive introduction on the fact that the final was a sell out. It went on to interview players from both New Zealand and Australia as well as an amateur player from Goucester All Golds. Katherine was introduced by Katie Gornall who asked had the World Cup caught the imagination of the wider public.
Following this clip I routinely did my daily scan of my preferred RL forum site. There was one comment that expressed a favourable view in the media coverage section. Fair enough. But I began to reflect on this tournament. Not about the games, players, tries, crowds etc etc – you will find them elsewhere (though you may have to dig a little). On the opening day of the tournament I went down to the Sports Club in my local village to watch England frustratingly, though not without promise, lose to the greatest rugby team in the world. They are not a brand name – rugby league doesn’t do that. Maybe it should. Well it sort of does. My comment about the greatest rugby side in the world comes naturally and without any hesitation. At the time of writing they are not even the reigning world cup holders. My current favourite band in the word is The Bitter Springs yet no has heard of them. They don’t sell records (they’ve been around a long time). They are not a brand. Yet they have considerable talent. And passion and integrity and honesty. Yes – honesty. Rugby league is an honest game. I grew up watching Wigan beat everyone and anyone – except Australia. I was at Central Park in 1994, 1990, 1986 – we couldn’t quite beat the ‘Unbeatables’ or even, I recall, in 1982, my dad coming back from the match whilst I was at my Auntie Mary’s on a cold dark Tuesday night saying the referee Fred Lindop had robbed us by denying a try by Wigan’s Glynn Shaw and then going on perversely to award Wigan a penalty. My dad said that was a pivotal moment in the future as the Kangaroos went on to literally be “invincible”. Still to this day I fear the green and gold jersey (I sense no fear when I see a black one, with or without any white). Funny as there is a family photo in my dining room on the wall and my wife is wearing it. She is from Sydney. We are all going to the final tomorrow. She says she’s wearing it. I’m wearing my All Golds top. It just seems right. Even after the semi final.
There was only one regret after that first game. Not the dropped balls or the decision about Charnley’s foot in touch or not. I hadn’t gone to watch it with my dad. He has Lewy Body dementia now and is in a nursing home. The last three live matches we saw were Wigan winning the Grand Final for the first time in 12 years, losing to St George in the World Club challenge and beating Leeds at Wembley. He was very poorly by then. A day or so later I did some work on the laptop and put 5 live extra on and listened to NZ v Samoa. Something did happen then. I don’t know what. Dave Woods doesn’t usually get me too excited. Maybe it was the Wire crowd. But something happened. And then I discovered I could actually watch the World Cup on Premier Sports online. So I subscribed. And was transfixed. It was breathtaking. It was exciting. It was brutal. It was honest. I wasn’t surprised. It was rugby league. And we all welcomed the Australian commentator Andre Voss into our hearts as he articulated the spectacle before him in a way we have been aching for – for, well, ever. He bellowed that Danny Brough is a “SUPERSTAR”. I cried laughing at "He's left 3 of his ribs on the pitch......somebody cook them up for me with some BBQ sauce....". But he cared. He did. He joked about the pub grub but he went in those pubs and talked to folk.
It was just great. The game was alive. I watched the first half of the England v Fiji game with my dad. I should have stayed for the second half. I formed my own opinions about the half back pairings and the rest of it. I read all the comments on the forum. I didn’t join in though. I took my two little kids to England v France. They loved it. Their mother has the temerity to suggest they are half Australian – thus it is my job to brainwash them. At one point I turned to the bloke sitting to the right of my little girl and had a rant about the half backs and the omission of a certain player. He nodded and agreed. I had another rant about something or other. He leaned over and said “I’ve never been to a rugby league game before”. It was brilliant. I said I hoped he enjoyed it and that he would come again.
I watched the semi final with my dad. All of it. I got him a beer and had to stir some thickener into it as per orders from the nurse. He didn’t know what was going on. I made the usual mistake of course. I got too excited. I should know better. We were at Elland Road three or four times. The one that stands out was 2004. I was convinced it was our time. Lockyer destroyed us. I still haven’t got over it. To be honest I haven’t got over Devereux’s missed tackle from ’92 at Wembley. But I still love it. Every month I have to change my password at work. November has been ‘daretodream’. I still will. After the semi final I just kissed my dad and told him I loved him. I couldn’t speak for two days after that. A week later at least I can say I watched it with my dad. That feels good. Better than good. Just like this game.
“Will enthusiasm for the game last beyond the tournament? Has it caught the imagination of the wider public?” I’m not going to try and answer these questions. I think they are irrelevant. To be frank they are hypocritical questions from the BBC. It is about more than ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘imagination’ and ‘the wider public’ – whatever that means. To me it’s about heart and courage and belief and spirit and honesty. And that’s just the rest of us, not even the players. Oh and a real sense of community. In the attic is a bottle of whiskey my dad and I bought in Western Australia in 2001 – only to be opened the day GB wins the ashes (well ok I’d go for the WC or a 4 nations). I do believe my day will come. The World Cup has confirmed to me what the game is – gold. All gold. 24 carat. Dare to dream.