Page XIII: World First

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 439 (Nov 2017)

‘They say the first time ain’t the greatest…’ trilled the dearly departed Prince on one of the lesser known hits of his that reside in my record collection (it’s from Raspberry Beret, pop pickers) and obviously the carnally obsessed Purple Rain man wasn’t singing about Rugby League, but the lyric sprung to mind while putting together this issue of RLW when I started trying to remember the first time I saw a Rugby League World Cup game.
In the end, my memory failed me and I had to look it up, so it can’t have been that great, can it?
Well, the match itself, having now been prompted, I recalled quite fondly. It was Great Britain v New Zealand at Elland Road, Leeds on 9th November 1985 and a 21 year old substitute named Lee Crooks slotted a monumental penalty goal in the final minute to level the scores in front of 22,209 fans, of which I was one.
It was a dramatic moment in a tense, nerve-jangling encounter, so how could I forget it?
The thing is, I remember that game as the decider of a three match Test Series against the Kiwis (a decider that ultimately didn’t decide anything, as the series ended a 1-1 draw) not a World Cup game. After all, there wasn’t a World Cup in 1985, was there?
Oh yes there was! And it had only just begun. It went on for three years, with random Test matches here and there accumulating World Cup points along the way, resulting – eventually – in a final between Australia and New Zealand in 1988.
Thank goodness we don’t do it like that anymore. Even though it took in another game that I would rank as one of the greatest internationals I have ever witnessed (Great Britain’s sensational 23-12 victory over the Aussies in Sydney in the Third Ashes Test of 1988) I much prefer the more compact tournaments that we almost take for granted now.
Yet how revolutionary it seemed in 1995, when the Centenary World Cup was staged in England and Wales featuring a (then) record number of ten teams covering such exotic places as Fiji, Tonga, South Africa and Western Samoa. There were plenty of pre-tournament predictions of doom and disaster (this is Rugby League, of course there were) but the stars aligned almost perfectly for once, the weather gods smiled, England beat the Aussies in the opener at Wembley and well over a quarter of a million tickets were sold making it the most successful World Cup ever at the time.
There were a few lop-sided games, the kind that make some faint-hearted souls argue Rugby League shouldn’t have World Cups at all (Fiji and South Africa copped hidings off both Australia and England) but to balance that out, Tonga were a sensation, almost toppling the mighty Kiwis in a pulsating group game at Warrington that ended 25-24 and pulling off a 28-all draw against PNG at The Boulevard. Add to that a Wales team that starred the likes of Jonathan Davies, Paul Moriarty and Scott Quinnell going toe to toe with Western Samoa featuring the imposing presence of a mighty Va’aiga Tuigamala in front of a capacity crowd at Swansea, then taking on England in the semi-final at Old Trafford in front of over 30,000 fans and the under-appreciated value of international Rugby League becomes clear.
It all went a bit wrong five years later. Some would argue that expanding to 16 teams (Russia, Cook Island, Lebanon, Ireland, Scotland and Aotearoa Maori were included in 2000) was a mistake, and a hefty overall financial loss would add fuel to that argument, but perpetually horrendous weather conditions, an underwhelming England side who lost their opening game to the Aussies at an unwelcoming Twickenham, allied to some bizarre scheduling decision all played their part too.
Still, I enjoyed watching Russia celebrate scoring a try against Australia in Hull. It was just a shame they let in 110 points in the other direction, but I hope they will be back one day.
For me, that is the beauty of the World Cup: the chance to see teams and players you’d never normally see, playing opponents they don’t usually get to play, and even in defeat there’s always something to celebrate.
We don’t always get every aspect right, but it is the biggest shop window our sport has and I love it.