14th November 2022
If and when I am eventually raised to the House of Lords, I shall arrange for the motto of my coat of arms to read “Nos illuc in fine”. We get there in the end.
I suspect that there are many participants in the current Rugby League World Cup – players, coaches, administrators, spectators – who would recognise the sentiment. The tournament was originally scheduled for the Autumn of 2021, but was postponed midst much controversy and (between some) ill-feeling – see “Same Time Next Year (Perhaps)”, 19th November 2021. It has now completed the semi-final stage with Australia and Samoa scheduled to meet next Saturday at Old Trafford to decide the winners. (I shall focus here on the men’s tournament; there have been separate women’s and wheelchair events).
I wonder if, in retrospect, the tournament organisers might wonder if having 16 sides in the competition might have been too many. At the elite level, the sport’s talent is spread fairly thinly, notwithstanding the scope for “heritage” players in Australia and England opting to represent the countries of a parent or grandparent.
In the group stage of the tournament, there were a number of very one-sided matches. England racked up 94 points against Greece, whilst Tonga scored 92 against the Cook Islands and Australia 84 against Scotland. The sides at the bottom of the 4 groups played (and lost) a total of 12 games in the process of which they registered a total of 76 points, but conceded no fewer than 618: an average score-line of 6-51.
(I am prepared to acknowledge that there is a counter-argument suggesting that the countries in which the fledgling sport of rugby league has scope to grow and prosper might need to go through these painful rites of passage. In the group stage of the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup, played in South Africa, New Zealand defeated Japan by 145 points to 17. Whilst it is claimed by some that this result held back the development of the sport in Japan by many years, it was nonetheless the case that, by the time of the 2019 tournament (which Japan hosted), the home side had reached the standard at which it could defeat both Ireland and Scotland in the group stage and progress to the quarter-final).
As far as the current Rugby League World Cup is concerned, most pundits would have predicted Australia and New Zealand to take their places in the semi-final and this was indeed how it transpired. On Friday evening, I went to Elland Road in Leeds to watch these teams face off.
In advance of the match, I did wonder if Australia’s relatively trouble-free passage to this stage might act against them. In their four games (including the quarter-final against the Lebanon), they had registered 240 points – including 43 tries – and conceded only 18. By contrast, New Zealand had been battle-hardened in their compelling quarter-final match with Fiji, in which they only took the lead for the first time within the last 10 minutes.
I mentioned this when I fell into conversation with a middle-aged man wearing an Australian rugby shirt as we walked towards the ground before the match. “Do you fancy your chances?” I asked him. “I think Australia will win”, he replied in a broad Yorkshire accent. “New Zealand were a bit clunky in their last match”.
In the event, Australia were fully engaged from the opening kick-off and New Zealand were far from clunky. The tone was set in the latter’s haka, the amplified sound of which swept through the stands. Thereafter, from beginning to end, it was an absolutely pulsating encounter of unremitting action, high skill and physical confrontation. New Zealand took the lead after 10 minutes with Dylan Brown’s smartly judged cross-kick to the try-line, which Joseph Manu leapt to catch and pass back for Jahrome Hughes to gather and score.
We waited for the inevitable Kangaroo response. It came a few minutes later and was a try of absolute brilliance. The half-back-cum-hooker Ben Hunt sent a high 50 yard punt spiralling deep into New Zealand territory which Josh Addo-Carr, having sprinted down the left wing, caught on the full at full speed without breaking stride on his way to the try line. The kick was inch-perfect and Addo-Carr timed his arrival to meet it with absolute precision. As the winger walked back to take his place for the New Zealand re-start, I wondered how many long hours on the training field had been invested – by both kicker and recipient – in order to generate such a breath-taking outcome.
Both sides added tries before half-time, when New Zealand led 14-10. In the second half, the battle continued unabated with, on several occasions, the spectators around me gasping (or perhaps wincing) in astonishment – and admiration – at some of the physical challenges they were witnessing.
It was perhaps somewhat ironic, therefore, that Australia’s winning try was a relatively soft affair. Having been awarded what I thought was a contentious penalty 10 yards from the New Zealand line, the Australian captain, James Tedesco, instructed the playmaker Nathan Cleary to take a tap kick rather than an attempt at goal. Cleary duly did so and passed the ball to Cameron Murray, who charged through a couple of would-be tacklers to score under the posts. At the time, it seemed to have been an unexpected breach of the New Zealand defensive line; looking at the television replay later, it was clear that Tedesco, with a clinical assessment of the state of play, had sensed a vulnerability in his tiring opponents which his side could ruthlessly exploit. Cleary’s conversion made it 16-14 and, even though there were still over 25 minutes left to play, that turned out to be the final score.
In contrast with the ersatz Australian I had met earlier, the majority of the local supporters seemed to favour the New Zealanders. A chant of “Kiwi, Kiwi” rang round the ground in the closing minutes as the “neutral” locals realised that the players’ diminishing reserves of energy were approaching complete exhaustion. Australia held on, however, despite a couple of late scares, their status as tournament favourites vindicated.
It being 11th November, the traditional colours of the two sides’ shirts – green and gold, and black and white – were supplemented with the design of a poppy, in Australia’s case on one of the sleeves and for New Zealand on the chest. As it happened, earlier in the day, along with a couple of hundred other people – including the whole of the Kangaroos’ squad of players and staff – I had attended the short Remembrance Day service in Victoria Square, where the Leeds War Memorial is situated.
James Tedesco’s day had begun with him laying a wreath at the ceremony. By the end of the evening, he had led his side into the Rugby League World Cup final.