Elite Sportsmen at the Top of Their Game

16th November 2016

It is appropriate – for three reasons, I think – that the last in this series of post-An Ordinary Spectator blogs should be on last Sunday’s England-Australia rugby league international in the Four Nations Tournament at the London Stadium.

First, the event. It was a rugby league match between Great Britain and Australia – at Headingley in November 1963 – that was the first international sporting contest I attended. As noted in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, it was a violent affair, which left a deep impression on the 9 year-old boy:

“The game was one of unremitting ferocity, notwithstanding the stern discipline imposed by the referee, Eric Clay from Leeds, who sent off two Australians and the British prop, Cliff Watson. I remember sitting in the stand and being awed – and, it has to be said, somewhat frightened – by the violence of grown men”.

Second, the venue. An early entry in this collection of blogs – “Olympic Games Football: What Do I Know?” (August 2012) – recognised Glasgow’s contribution to the 2012 Olympics by reporting on two of the matches in the football tournament played at HampdenPark. This blog completes an Olympic circle by ending the collection at the main venue of that successful Games.

aside. It is under some sufferance
that I refer to the venue as the London Stadium. For me, it remains the Olympic Stadium,
which, let us not forget, was funded by taxpayers across the UK, not
just in the capital. However, it
does now seem to have been fully colonised by its football tenants – West Ham
United FC – as evident in the external signage, the Bobby Moore and Sir Trevor
Brooking Stands, the listing of club honours on the balcony and the use of
claret and blue colours throughout the stadium].

But, back to the rugby. This year’s Four Nations Tournament has been contested by New Zealand and Scotland, as well as Sunday’s combatants, the England/Australia match being the last in the round-robin stage. Following the earlier matches – which, crucially, included England’s one point defeat by New Zealand – the hosts had to avoid defeat (i.e. to win or draw) in order to qualify for next Sunday’s final in Liverpool.

England were still in the game at half-time, trailing by only 6-10, having earlier taken the lead through a well-worked try by Jermaine McGillvary on the right wing. However, Australia were too good after the break, when a lethal combination of power, skill and precision produced 18 points in one 12 minute spell. Three of their five second half tries could be attributed to the strength and technique of individual players close to the England line. England scored a couple of good tries of their own through Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hall, but succumbed to the continual pressure exerted by their superior opponents. The final score of 36-18 properly reflected the contest.

It had been over 20 years since I had seen the Australian rugby league team in the flesh: a test match with Great Britain at Elland Road in 1994. Throughout this period – as also for the 20 years before that – they have generally been the sport’s dominant international team, albeit with some occasional dents in their crown from New Zealand. In the second half on Sunday, the game having been effectively decided, I was able to sit back and admire the excellence of the team – its accuracy, cohesion and relentlessness – and the individual players within it.

And so to the third reason for this being an appropriate juncture at which to draw this collection of blogs to an end. At various times in the last five years – as during the half-century before that captured in An Ordinary Spectator – I have been reminded of the pleasure in watching elite sportsmen at the top of their game. Throughout this long period, I consider myself fortunate that, even when the side I had been supporting – whether Yorkshire CCC or the European Ryder Cup team or the England rugby union side – have been second best, I have been able to recognise the brilliance of their opponents: Alvin Kallicharran and Jack Nicklaus and Gareth Edwards et al.

In terms of the rugby league players of Australia, this acknowledgement of excellence stretches back to seeing the great Reg Gasnier in that turbulent match at Headingley in 1963. It extends through Bobby Fulton in 1973 and Mal Meninga in 1982 and Brad Fittler in 1994 with others in between. And, in the present generation – on Sunday – it has now been extended to Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith: each now probably in the latter stages of his international career, but amongst the best to have ever played the game.

For the presentation of a series of sports blogs, that’s not a bad place to stop. If only temporarily.

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