Rugby League World Cup’s 50 historic highlights – Part Two

In last week’s issue we began our countdown of the 50 historic highlights that have marked the progress of the Rugby League World Cup.

There have been eight trophies, the most famous of which went missing for twenty years.

Gaps between World Cup Finals have ranged from two years to eleven.

Our first article began with the origins of the tournament and covered its development over its first 40 years to 1995.

Now RICHARD de la RIVIERE looks chronologically at the most famous moments from 1995 to the present day.

1995: Kiwis avoid embarrassment

The Halifax Centenary World Cup saw Fiji, South Africa, Tonga and Western Samoa make their tournament debuts, and it was the Tongans who came so close to upsetting one of the established nations. With hooker Duane Mann, a former Kiwi, having the game of his life, Tonga led New Zealand 24-12 going into the last ten minutes of their Group Two match at Wilderspool.

The Kiwis pulled it out of the fire – but only just. Hitro Okesene and Richie Blackmore crossed. Matthew Ridge converted both. And then Ridge shattered Tongan hearts by kicking a last-gasp drop-goal as his side won 25-24.

1995: An incredible night

Wales and Western Samoa had seen off the French in Group Three and came head-to-head in Swansea for a place in the semi-finals.

The game, and indeed the occasion itself, was magnificent as 15,385 fans packed into the Vetch Field and shouted themselves hoarse.

The local heroes, captained by Jonathan Davies, responded fittingly, winning 22-10 thanks to tries by Kevin Ellis, Anthony Sullivan and Iestyn Harris who, at 19, was fast becoming the hottest property in the British game. 

Sadly for the Welsh, their journey ended in the semi-final at Old Trafford against England.

1995: A classic semi-final

Australia were 20-6 up and on the verge of a routine semi-final victory against New Zealand at Huddersfield, when Richie Barnett pulled a try back. Then both Iro brothers, Kevin and Tony, touched down and Matthew Ridge suddenly had a touchline conversion in the 78th minute to book a place in the final. 

He fluffed it, but there was still time for New Zealand to engineer the room for the skipper to attempt a left-footed one-pointer from halfway. As the stadium fell silent, Ridge’s kick went an inch wide. 

Australia won 30-20 after extra-time and beat England 16-8 in the final.

1995: The first Emerging Nations champions

Cook Islands, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, USA, Moldova and Morocco were the seven teams that entered the first Emerging Nations World Cup in 1995. The Cooks and the Irish topped the groups, winning all their matches, and met in the final at Gigg Lane in Bury. 

Ireland winger Phelim Comerford scored first, but that was as good as it got for them as tries from wingers Alex Kermode and Sonny Shepherd, as well as stand-off and skipper Craig Bowen and hooker Jason Cuthers sealed a 22-6 win for the Cook Islands. Their halfback Ali Davys was adjudged player of the tournament.

2000: NZ win first Women’s World Cup

Three teams entered the inaugural Women’s World Cup, sponsored by – New Zealand, Australia and hosts Great Britain & Ireland. 

New Zealand beat both teams in the group stage with Great Britain & Ireland beating Australia. There were then two play-off matches, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, in which the Ferns beat Australia 50-6 at Dewsbury and the Lionesses beat the Jillaroos 4-0 at Castleford, with Hall of Fame inductee Brenda Dobek kicking a couple of penalties.

New Zealand won the Wilderspool final 26-4 with stand-off and player of the match Trish Hina scoring twice. Shelley Land scored the hosts’ only try.

2000: Ireland kick off the World Cup

Four of the 1995 emerging nations – Ireland, Cook Islands, Russia and Scotland – were moved up with the big boys five years later, and the Irish enjoyed a magnificent tournament.

They staged the opener against Samoa at Belfast’s Windsor Park, having assembled a strong side. A trademark Barrie McDermott offload set up the competition’s first try for St Helens’ Grand Final-winning skipper Chris Joynt, with further Irish scores coming from Luke Ricketson, Michael Eagar, Brian Carney and Steve Prescott. Appalling weather kept the crowd to just 3,207, the theme of a disappointing tournament, which saw the lowest crowd average of all World Cups at just 8,514.

2000: Try of the match!

Matthew Donovan is hardly a household name, but in the 2000 World Cup he enjoyed his moment of fame.

Journalists were required to select the best try of each match, and those at The Boulevard couldn’t resist ignoring Australia’s 19 tries, plumping instead for Donovan’s 19th-minute try for Russia, who lost 110-4.

Russia were 24-0 down when scrum-half Igor Gavriline found prop Robert Campbell, whose perfect grubber-kick was touched down by Donovan just ahead of Wendell Sailor. Mikhail Mitrofanov of the Kazan Arrows missed the goal, but the Russians had made a mark in their only World Cup to date.

2000: French delight

On the same day that Puig Aubert’s statue was unveiled in Carcassonne, France got their 2000 World Cup campaign back on track at the Stade Albert Domec with a wonderful win over the Tongans, for whom a young Willie Mason played.

France had blown a 16-0 lead against Papua New Guinea, losing 23-20, but with two teams qualifying for the quarter-finals, matters were still in their own hands. And sure enough, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in November 2000 tries by Freddie Banquet, Claude Sirvent, Arnaud Dulac, Jean-Marc Garcia and Pascal Jampy gave them a 28-8 win before a joyous crowd of 10,288.

2000: Hakas galore

One of the highlights of the 2000 World Cup came in West Cumbria as Samoa and Aotearoa Māori produced a humdinger at Derwent Park. The Maoris were offered a place in a future World Cup during the Super League War if New Zealand took the Murdoch shilling.

The hakas were worth the entrance money alone, with Tawera Nikau’s Maoris doing two. And the action was just as spicy. Second-half Samoan tries by Henry Fa’afili (two), Willie Swann and Loa Milford overturned a half-time deficit as the Samoans won 21-16. Steve Matthews, Boycie Nelson and Paul Rauhihi scored for the Māori.

The spectators were treated to further hakas after the final hooter.

2000: Wales stun the Aussies 

The most astonishing 40 minutes of Rugby League were served up at Huddersfield in the second semi-final of the 2000 World Cup.

An underwhelming tournament, coupled with England’s 49-6 semi-final defeat to the Kiwis, had dampened everybody’s spirits. Few were surprised when Australia took an early 8-0 lead in their semi-final, but Ian Watson, Kris Tassell and Lee Briers scored quickfire tries, with Briers adding two long-range drop goals, as Wales led 20-14 at half-time. Spectators and TV viewers alike were stunned!

But Australia eventually won 46-22 and beat New Zealand to win the Lincoln Financial Group World Cup – and the original trophy.

2008: The super pool

OF all the daft ideas this sport has ever had, Colin Love’s 2008 super pool takes some beating. The tournament director decided to place Australia, New Zealand and England in the same group, along with Papua New Guinea, with the top three qualifying for the semi-final. 

Legendary scribe Dave Hadfield memorably described it as, “… this year’s masterplan, under which everyone is meant to turn up, give Papua New Guinea a good kicking and await further instructions.”

Apart from the Kumuls pushing England all the way, the super pool matches were thoroughly dull as the group outcome was all-too predictable. Pools two and three were largely ignored by the wider media but provided wonderful entertainment.

2008: Samoa and Tonga clash in the Blue Mountains 

Penrith staged the Samoa-Tonga Pool Three match, and the players didn’t disappoint, producing a match of the highest intensity, underlining the growing Polynesian talent in the sport. Samoa took the spoils by 20-12 amid a raucous atmosphere. Extra security was needed for the 11,787 crowd and both sides were warned not to encroach over the halfway line with their pre-match hakas.

St Helens winger Francis Meli scored an early try, with skipper Nigel Vagana, Matt Utai and George Carmont also touching down. Michael Jennings and Tevita Leo-Latu responded for the Tongans. But neither side made the semi-finals.

2008: Scotland’s first win

Scotland produced a huge upset at Rockhampton when they earned their first World Cup win, beating eventual semi-finalists Fiji 18-16 in Rockhampton.

The Scots had been thrashed by France and then had to take on the Fijians, who, in turn, had hammered the French, in the final group game. They needed to win by 28 points to top the group. That didn’t happen, but Steve McCormack’s men were magnificent in downing the flamboyant Bati. 

Oliver Wilkes was the hero with a late try, goaled by skipper Danny Brough, after Fiji had taken a 73rd-minute lead through Semi Tadulala. Jon Steel and Michael Robertson also crossed.

2008: Slater throws away the World Cup

Billy Slater was the best player in the world by a country mile in 2008, winning the Golden Boot with ease. He had enjoyed a wonderful tournament, scoring hat-tricks against England and Fiji. And then it all went wrong in the greatest World Cup Final of them all. 

Australia led 16-12 at the break. Lance Hohaia and Greg Inglis exchanged tries in the second half. Slater then collected a dangerous kick and, realising he was heading for touch, blindly threw the ball infield and presented Benji Marshall with the game-breaking score. A penalty try for Hohaia sealed the game, which the Kiwis won 34-20.

2008: Ricky Stuart blows a gasket

Australia coach Ricky Stuart was magnanimous in the post-match press conference, although some of his players did tell journalists to “f*** off out of the changing room” where they were entitled to be. Behind the scenes, however, Stuart raged at anybody and everybody.

Reports suggested Stuart had accused ARL chief executive Geoff Carr of an anti-Australia agenda. The following day, he called referee Ashley Klein “a f***ing cheat” and was alleged to have manhandled Stuart Cummings, who tried to intervene. Within a couple of weeks, Stuart had resigned as Australia coach.

Nevertheless, the tournament had been a vast improvement on 2000.

2008: The Festival of World Cups

Australia hosted four other World Cups in November 2008 – Women, Police, Wheelchair and Defence Forces. 

It was the third such women’s tournament, and it was won for the third time by New Zealand, who beat Australia 34-0 in the final at Brisbane’s Lang Park. England came third.

Staged for the first time, the Wheelchair and Defence Forces’ World Cups were won by England who beat Australia in both finals – 44-12 in the Wheelchair and 26-16 in the Defence Forces.

Fiji won the Police World Cup, beating New Zealand 20-12 in the final. England were beaten by Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

2013: Fiji win in Rochdale

It was fitting that Fiji got their 2013 Campaign underway in Rochdale, given their history with the Hornets.

Nearly 52 years to the day earlier, Joe Levula, known as ‘the Pele of Fijian sport’, had arrived to begin a great career in Rochdale. Other Fijians to play at Spotland include Orisi Dawai, Laitia Ravouvou, Voate Driu, Litai Burogolevu, Gideon Dolu, Apisia Toga and Mike Ratu. Rochdale had the largest Fijian community in the UK outside London.

On a highly charged night, the Petero Civoniceva-skippered Bati beat Ireland 32-14, with tries from Akuila Uate (three), Kevin Naiqama, Tariq Sims and Korbin Sims.

2013: Scotland light up Workington

The best match of the 2013 competition involved Scotland at Workington. The only debate is which game.

First, they beat Tonga in the most extraordinary match on a freezing-cold Tuesday night. With Danny Brough pulling the strings, Scotland led 20-4 at half-time and somehow managed to withstand an incredible Tongan performance after the break, which saw them have six tries disallowed. They did score four legitimate ones but went down 26-24. 

On the Sunday, the Scots built another lead against Italy before trailing to an Anthony Minichiello try on the hour. But Ben Hellewell’s try, goaled by Brough, gave them a 30-all draw in another astonishing match.

2013: Late heartbreak for England

“It’s the hope that kills you” started Neil Barraclough’s match report in this very newspaper as Shaun Johnson scored a last-gasp winner in a scintillating Wembley semi-final.

The selection of Gareth Widdop alongside Kevin Sinfield gave England a balanced halfback pairing for the first time in their campaign. Tries by Sean O’Loughlin, the imperious Sam Burgess and Kallum Watkins saw them lead 18-14. 

Issac Luke played the ball a yard from the tryline as the clock hit 79:30. Johnson accepted the ball at first receiver and beat Kevin Sinfield and George Burgess to score a try that shattered the hearts of the 67,545 crowd.

2017: Port Moresby comes alive

One of the success stories of the 2017 World Cup was Papua New Guinea, who played their group matches before packed crowds in their capital city, Port Moresby.

David Mead’s hat-trick helped them thrash Wales 50-6 in the second game of the tournament. Sheffield’s Garry Lo capped a superb performance with a try as the Kumuls beat Ireland 14-6 to all but secure qualification to the quarter-finals. And then winger Justin Olam crossed the line three times as the Papua New Guineans rounded off a magnificent fortnight by thumping the Americans 64-0.

Their World Cup came to an end in the quarter-final against England.

2017: Two fabulous quarters

This was the third World Cup after 2000 and 2013 to have quarter-finals and finally we had a close game – in fact, there were two on the same day. 

First, Tonga, who had beaten New Zealand in a compelling group match, beat Lebanon 24-22 in Christchurch. David Fusitu’a, Will Hopoate and Tui Lolohea scored their tries. The Cedars also scored three, but Ata Hingano kicked four goals to Mitchell Moses’ three. 

Later in Wellington, the Kiwis were surprisingly knocked out by Fiji. Shaun Johnson’s goal put the Kiwis 2-0 up at the break, but they were undone by Apisai Koroisau and Taane Milne penalties. 

2017: Tongan dreams dashed

This might sit at the very top of the great Rugby League atmospheres. The noise and colour made by the Tongan fans at their semi-final with England in Auckland were simply sensational, and their players nearly completed the most astonishing comeback. 

Trailing 20-0 to Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman tries with seven minutes left, Tevita Pangai Junior, Siliva Havili and Tui Lolohea suddenly pulled it back to 20-18. Pandemonium!

The Mate Ma’a shifted the ball left with ten seconds on the clock. The ball came free. Andrew Fifita touched down. Knock on. The hooter. Panic over. England lived to fight another day.

2017: The ankle tap

England were 6-0 down with 15 minutes remaining of the 2017 World Cup Final when Kallum Watkins took Elliott Whitehead’s pass and broke free into the Australians’ half. Surely, he would draw the fullback Billy Slater and send Whitehead unopposed to the posts. 

Alas, no. John Dugan dived at his feet from behind and somehow managed to tap his ankle. Watkins fell. The chance was gone. Boyd Cordner scored the only try of the game in the 15th minute when he burst through Kevin Brown’s tackle. Golden Boot winner Cameron Smith goaled. England went so close, but Australia had won their eleventh World Cup.

2021: World Cup postponed

In August 2021, it was confirmed that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cups that were due to be played that autumn would be postponed because of Australia’s and New Zealand’s concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.

With virus numbers increasing in the UK and remaining low in Australia, the subject had been debated for several weeks with high-profile TV pundit Phil Gould leading calls for the postponement.

The decision was a huge disappointment to many in the Northern Hemisphere, but at least the two nations were committed to playing the tournament a year later.

Better late than never!

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