I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about the Rugby League World Cup, the semi-final line-up for which is now almost complete.
For me, the thirteen-man code is the most consistently exciting spectator sport bar none. Put two evenly matched sides up against each other and you’re pretty much guaranteed eighty minutes of attacking skill and intensely physical defence. If there is a perceived issue, it would be that any mismatch can be cruelly exposed and arguably for a sport that has this golden opportunity to attract new followers, one-sided hammerings are perhaps not the greatest advert. More of that later though….
I absolutely accept the argument that media coverage is based around a sport’s popularity – and the fact that despite years of international underachievement, domestic football still draws massive crowds, and much as I didn’t watch any of the game, there was clearly significant interest in England’s seemingly meaningless friendly against Chile, which was broadcast live on ITV.
Of the two rugby codes, I would again concede that Union has wider general appeal and the top-flight professional game has a greater geographical spread. That said, sit a novice down to watch a game of both Union and League and I know which they’ll understand better. Both sports demand incredible physical attributes, but the nuances of Rugby Union – especially when the ball regularly disappears underneath a pile of bodies – detract from the flow and excitement, both of which are essential if the profile of a sport is to be raised, or retained.
A World Cup – especially one hosted by the home nations – presents the perfect opportunity to showcase all that is great about the game, yet on a quarter-final Saturday, we are given England’s encounter with France at 8pm in the evening, after the BBC has already shown two full Rugby Union autumn internationals and extended highlights of the team whose live rights they evidently weren’t able to afford. Important games, I’m sure, but there’s no World Cup at stake.
The focus of the BBC’s Rugby League coverage has been solely on England, yet in Australia and New Zealand, we have two nations filled with the best talent the sport has to offer. Yes they’ve won all their fixtures, and won most of them convincingly, but much as I recognise that such one-sided games can be a negative, a gulf in class is arguably less relevant when you’re watching some of the best players on the planet.
As far as England is concerned, they’ve progressed to the semi-final and have been steady, if not spectacular. The test comes against New Zealand next weekend – England didn’t perform for a full eighty minutes in any of their group games, something they simply have to do if they want to challenge the reigning world champions.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the competition has been the relative lack of exposure given to the smaller nations, but in particular to Scotland, whose appearance in the quarter-finals was as unexpected as it was brilliant. The “Bravehearts” had progressed courtesy of wins over Tonga and the USA and a draw against Italy – who had come into the competition on the back of a shock warm-up victory over England. A heavy defeat against New Zealand was no disgrace and should not detract from their group performances.
I was absolutely delighted for the Scotland coach Steve McCormack (pictured above), who I know from his time in charge at Gateshead Thunder. Major shocks in Rugby League are relatively rare, and such courage and achievement really does need to be highlighted and celebrated.
For me, Australia look nailed on for the final and New Zealand probably has the edge in the other semi. The Kiwis are yet to be really challenged though and perhaps England’s defeat by Australia and the bruising first forty against Fiji will have a bearing on the outcome? Either way, I hope the games are given the build-up and coverage they deserve, but whoever eventually lifts the trophy, I sincerely hope that some headlines are reserved for the players who represented Scotland – offer me the Bravehearts at Derwent Park, or England’s footballers at Wembley and I’d choose Workington every time. Congratulations Steve - and to all your squad - on a fantastic job.