MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, looks forward to England’s World Cup semi-final clash with Samoa at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
We have now had 28 World Cup matches in the men’s tournament with just three games to go.
Although the tournament had for the most part failed to rise to any great heights before last weekend, we were treated to three matches that were quite thrilling, at least for English supporters, with a comprehensive victory for the hosts against Papua New Guinea at Wigan on Saturday, while the following two matches were both exciting in their own way.
The Kiwis’ victory over Fiji was somewhat fortunate and was helped by a highly controversial penalty that was awarded to them on 70 minutes after a captain’s challenge to the referee’s decision of a knock-on against Joey Manu of New Zealand.
The video-referee ruled that the ball had been stripped from Manu and, from the penalty, Jordan Rapana was able to kick the goal that put the Kiwis in front for the first time.
Rapana also scored a late try as the Kiwis held on for a late victory, but it was a penalty that I thought, on balance, shouldn’t have been given.
I’m in two minds about the wisdom of bringing the captain’s challenge into the World Cup.
In this instance it clearly affected the outcome of the game and yet if the Kiwis had already by that stage mounted a previous captain’s challenge that had been rejected, they would have been unable to challenge the referee Gerard Sutton’s decision in that case and the result might have been different.
We often tend to adopt innovations from the NRL uncritically but I’m unsure about the wisdom of doing that for the World Cup, especially when decisions are highly marginal, as we saw for the Kiwis against the Fijians.
Nonetheless, the Kiwis won and will now face Australia in the first semi-final tonight at Elland Road in Leeds.
The clash between the two South Pacific nations of Tonga and Samoa at Warrington last Sunday was everything we hoped it would be, with a final margin of only two points in a fearsome contest that was preceded by the two sides facing each other in issuing their challenges simultaneously, which made epic viewing for those within the stadium and those watching at home on television.
The Samoans just held off the Tongans and will now get the chance to earn revenge against England for that opening-day shellacking at St James’ Park.
The one thing we can be quite sure about is that England won’t register another 60-6 victory. On Saturday it will have to be much harder-earned than it was three weeks ago.
The two semi-finals are expected to draw around 25,000 to Elland Road and 40,000 to the Emirates Stadium the following day.
It will be interesting to see whether they draw a total attendance in excess of the 2013 semi-final figure, when a double-header was held at Wembley and attracted an attendance of 67,545.
We all remember how badly that ended for England and English supporters can only hope that we don’t witness something equally heartbreaking at the Emirates.
And on the subject of attendances, there’s no denying that they have been largely disappointing for a number of reasons, partly connected with the one-sided nature of so many matches, partly because people have less money to spend in the current economic climate and partly because, when every match is on TV and they are coming at you thick and fast, it is so much easier to sit on your sofa at home and watch the games on TV.
No doubt when the tournament ends, we will see some analysis of what went right and what went wrong.
But in the short term let’s all look forward to what promises to be a thrilling weekend of World Cup semi-finals.