Page XIII: Edge of Glory

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 441 (Jan 2018)

Ok, so England didn’t win the World Cup after all, but they came closest to getting their fingertips on the trophy since 1992, when Great Britain were agonisingly pipped by the Aussies (who else) by 10 points to 6 at Wembley in front of a then record international crowd of 73,631.
I remember walking out of Wembley that day feeling absolutely gutted. Despite not crossing the whitewash for a try, Deryck Fox’s three penalty goals had looked for long periods of the match like they might be enough to get the Lions home, until a moment that probably still haunts John Devereux to this day (it still haunts me, that’s for sure) as Steve Renouf slipped through a gap in the British defence to score what turned out to be the winning score twelve minutes from time.
A lot has changed in Rugby League since that day, not least that Great Britain no longer play in the World Cup, having been replaced by England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, but although it is 25 years ago, the memory is still fresh and it still feels to me like ‘the one that got away’.
How different might things have been if Great Britain had won the World Cup in 1992? Would the sport in this country have been able to capitalise on the achievement, in a time when household names like Martin Offiah and Ellery Hanley were still at the top of their game? Would the Australians have become less complacent in their regard for international Rugby League, if ‘the Poms’ had deprived them of the title they almost take for granted as World Champions?
It’s a tantalising thought.
But it didn’t happen, and 25 years on, it didn’t happen again, this time for England rather than Great Britain, the margin just six points separating Wayne Bennett’s ‘Wall of White’ from an Australian team that despite containing a trio of ‘once in a lifetime’ talent in Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, were huffing and puffing towards the end of a game they knew had been a genuine contest, right up there with anything the much more lauded (in Australia at least) State of Origin has produced.
As I turned off the TV after the game, watching from afar on this occasion rather than in the stadium, my feelings were slightly different. Disappointed at the defeat for England, of course, but not devastated. There was too much to be positive about.
For starters, it had been a great game, full of tension and drama, if a little short on spectacular try-scoring opportunities but that’s only because both defences were outstanding.
How can you not be awed when you see a player like James Graham get clattered in a tackle, blood streaming from his face, then just get up and carry on as if his life depended on it?
Even with only a minute or two remaining, England were still in with a shout, having put in their best performance in at least a decade, and the Australians knew it. You could see the relief etched on their faces at the end. In a tournament where they had rarely been troubled on an otherwise imperious march to the final, they had to stretch every sinew to repel the very real threat that England would take the title of World Champions from them.
Ultimately – and almost inevitably – it was unforced errors that fatally undermined England’s hopes of claiming the famous old Paul Barrière Trophy, and Australia’s ability to make one of their surprisingly rare scoring opportunities count on the scoreboard saw them edge the game as deserved winners.
The World Cup final deserved a full house to watch the top drawer spectacle both teams served up. Sadly, in Brisbane it failed to achieve that. Although this was a near miss for England, the only way to convince the Australian public that international Rugby League is worth parting with their dollars to watch it in the same numbers they watch their own inter-State showdowns, will be when England go one step further and actually beat them. Getting close is good, but it’s not good enough.
The World Cup returns to England’s shores in four years’ time (and I hope to Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France too) where it will almost certainly prove a bigger draw in terms of attendances than it has down under.
Who knows what the reaction would be in this country to an England victory, but wouldn’t it be great, at long last, to find out! They say it’s the hope that kills you but I’m counting down the days already.