LONDON, Sunday: The World Cup was an outstanding success.
England's warmest October in 300 years, the presence of the exciting South
Pacific countries and a feeling among British spectators that this was England's
best chance to win a tournament in any sport, all combined to raise TV ratings
and secure record crowds.
The unexpected bonus was that rugby league - once an isolated little brick
schoolhouse - is now a thriving modern high school. The Centenary World Cup has
demonstrated that the code now has plenty of pupils in a number of forms.
Sure, the inclusion of Wales and Tonga in the 10-nation tournament was
achieved by the trick of allowing English and New Zealand players to choose to
play for the country of their grandparents.
Many ridiculed the Wales prop, Kelvin Skerrett, declaring that he would bleed
for the land of his grandparents, considering he spoke with a broad Lancashire
accent and learnt his league with Wigan.
But, all the heroes in Wales's semi-final team, such as as Warrington's
Jonathan Davies and Iestyn Harris, want to return to the valleys, particularly
if a Super League team is based there.
Indeed, the Herald has learnt that Scott Gibbs, a former Welsh rugby union
player, current centre with St Helens and recently courted by Manly, has signed
with Swansea rugby union club.
Wales coach Clive Griffiths said after the semi-final loss: "The last three
weeks have been a great U-turn for Welsh rugby league and rugby league in
Even the port-sipping, leather-patch men of rugby union concede that southern
hemisphere rugby has erred by excluding South Pacific countries from the $766
million deal with Rupert Murdoch. They believe the 10-year deal merely hands
Tonga, Fiji and Western Samoa to rugby league.
The Emerging Nations competition - a seven-team tournament played at minor
centres such as Dewsbury and Bury - was also very successful. The improvement in
some teams was phenomenal.
In nine months, Morocco has changed from a gimmicky team dressed in white
robes and red fezes at the World Sevens, to a team of committed tacklers with a
soundly-structured attacking pattern.
The Russians, thin and impoverished, play with such a zeal that their
captain, sent off in a match, cried when he missed the game against the United
States. A chain-smoking manager in a trench coat formed the players into a V
before the game, and they fixed their eyes on the Russian flag while the
substitutes executed forward rolls.
Sure, the victors, Cook Islands, won because they included players - such as
the Gold Coast's Ali Davys and Illawarra's Craig Bowen - who had learnt their
football in NSW. But a rule restricting the number of imports to five
professional players encourages local development.
Ireland, beaten finalists, boasted the stars of their team played for Bangor,
an amateur club in the Emerald Isle. They pointed to fullback Gavin Gordon, a
17-year-old who scored three tries against Molodova, declaring him "the youngest
international in the world".
Admittedly, some of the spectators were occasionally confused.
When the Cook Islands took their seats after defeating the US - before the
Russia-Scotland game - English spectators stood, clapped and said: "Well done,
Papua New Guinea." Some teams included players who viewed the tournament as an
airfare-andaccommodation-paid trip to England.
One American winger said shortly after a booming rendition of the Star
Spangled Banner: "I'm only in the team because of my singing." Another player,
Doug Erickson, was on his honeymoon.
There were also indications that the Americans had learnt their rugby league
from videos of Winfield Cup matches.
Australians are accustomed to the sight of the winger passing the ball from
the sideline to the tap man to speed up the execution of a penalty play.
The Americans clearly believe this is part of the rules. Whenever the ball
boy rolled the ball over to the American tap man, the tap man passed the ball to
his winger, who immediately returned it to him.
But the football at the top level was of high quality.
The BBC let the organisers down by not showing enough of it on television,
even though the opening game attracted 4.2 million viewers.
The ticket agency did not anticipate the crowds, and at least three games
Even so, the weather was wonderful and few complained.
England move to a summer schedule next season, paralleling the Australian
winter, and hope to keep the converts won by the World Cup. But, the naysayers
claim that in 100 years the game has not even conquered Sheffield, merely 20
minutes down the M1 from Leeds.
However, rugby league's international popularity can perhaps be gleaned from
a small item in The Daily Telegraph.
Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, has a Broncos
shirt with his name written on the tag. This information came to light when PP
took the wrong bag off a luggage carousel at Heathrow airport.
Having the Duke of Edinburgh as the patron of the game is merely tokenism.
But a blue-blood dressing up in the kit of the working man's game shows the
code has indeed travelled far in 100 years.