So the Rugby League World Cup is over and the trophy will be returning to Australia—its rightful place, many will suggest. Yesterday’s final at Old Trafford was probably not the spectacle that many of the neutrals would have been hoping for, but that’s partly because we were probably spoiled by the truly incredible semi-final between England and the Kiwis, but more relevantly, Australia were simply outstanding on the day.
Far more knowledgeable people than me will tell you that success in rugby league is built around defence. Well the Australians didn’t concede a single try after their opening group fixture against England—and I suppose it’s fair to allow a squad that hasn’t played competitively for a few weeks (and travelled halfway around the world) eighty minutes to acclimatise!
Such a statistic is remarkable and given the attacking flair the Kiwis possess, the fact that even they couldn’t breach the Australian defence tells you all you need to know about the fitness, skill, bravery and determination displayed by the seventeen men in Green and Gold.
Jonathan Thurston (pictured) was outstanding and would have been my man of the match, but it’s not unusual for someone wearing the 1, 6, 7 or 9 shirt to grab the headlines, and the Aussie pack not only laid the foundation for the playmakers to do their stuff, they also dominated the Kiwi forwards to the extent that their halves, hooker and the supremely gifted Sonny Bill Williams had very little influence. Perhaps the Kiwi’s bruising encounter with England was a factor, but in fairness, nothing should detract from the Australian performance. They were magnificent.
If there was a downside, it was the Old Trafford pitch—specifically the in-goal area. The stadium is so often dubbed the “Theatre of Dreams”—an expression I hate—but both Brett Morris and Manu Vatuvei were fortunate to escape serious injury when they colliding with the advertising hoardings that were situated right next to the ridiculously short in-goal area.
I know there was a massive crowd and a great atmosphere, but these are some of the finest athletes on the planet, playing one of the toughest sports. Yes they want to entertain, but they are also professionals trying to do a job and frankly it was an insult—and a potentially dangerous insult at that—to have rugby league’s highest profile game played in a sub-standard playing arena.
Overall though, I believe the competition has been a success. Australia has raised the bar very high indeed, and it’s now up to the likes of New Zealand and England/Great Britain to find a way of closing the gap. There were brilliant performances by some of the emerging nations: Italy, USA and, in particular Steve McCormack’s Scotland squad that did so wonderfully well to reach the quarter-finals.
Although the live television coverage was restricted to the England games (something with which I didn’t agree), the profile of the game will hopefully have been boosted by the sheer enthusiasm of those who commentated. Mark Chapman filled the Claire Balding role well—he comes across as a likeable bloke—and even though the likes of Brian Noble and Jonathan Davies aren’t perhaps the most polished behind a microphone, their knowledge and love of the game is hard to ignore. Jon Wilkin is always interesting to listen to, and I think big Eorl Crabtree may well have a career in the media after he hangs up his boots. His enthusiasm is infectious—and even if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t argue with him!
So there you have it, the World Cup is done and dusted. Congratulations to Australia—in fact, congratulations to every single player who represented their respective country. Saturday afternoons just won’t be the same…