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My World Cup Memories

Sure, the final was a bit of an anti-climax, and England didn’t make it, but wasn’t the 2013 Rugby League World Cup great!

The biggest crowds in Workington for a generation, over 7,000 for a group game in Bristol and a number of sold out stadiums. Record crowds at Spotland (for a RL game), John Smiths Huddersfield (for a sporting event) and Leigh Sports Village and the final set an all-time record for an international Rugby League game. Its fair to say the fans – new and old – turned out in great numbers to support the event.

Great viewing figures on the BBC were complemented by regular highlights, and full live coverage of the world feed was on Premier Sports, with BBC radio commentating on all the games too. They say targets on commercial partnerships were met and whilst it wasn’t exactly wall to wall, press coverage was an upgrade on what we’re used to. All these are reasons for the tournament to have been considered a success.

But it wasn’t just this off field stuff that was good was it – the action on the field was almost always highly intense, highly skilled and highly enjoyable. Who will easily forget the video ref trying to pick the bones out of the dramatic close to Scotland v Tonga? Or Dean Whare’s offload out of touch in the semi-final?

I personally went to 7 games live – Rochdale, Huddersfield, Leigh, Salford, Halifax, Wigan and Old Trafford – and watched all but 4 others on the TV. I saw all but three teams in the flesh and I had a great time with all of it. Before I go over the games I did get to, I’ll pick out the most memorable games I watched from the sofa.

29 October 2013 – Premier Sports – Tonga 24-26 Scotland – Group C

A lot of people talked about the New Zealand v Samoa game at Warrington as a highlight but sadly I wasn’t able to take in that game. The best TV game for me in the first week was Scotland v Tonga at Workington. It looked like a cold night up in Cumbria but the Bravehearts started hot and led 20-4 at half-time. Tonga in all honesty looked rusty and out of tune with one-another but don’t let that dent what Scotland did.

The second half started with a surge from the Mate Ma’a and saw four tries in 21 minutes after half time put Tonga ahead. They looked to have found their physically and were making all sorts of metres, but Scotland didn’t lie down and Matty Russell popped up in the 72nd minute to get scores level, Danny Brough converting to take back the lead. Tonga threw all they had at Scotland, which left the video ref Ashley Klein with a number of decisions to make, including one on the final hooter as the game ended in the ref’s box. ‘No Try’ came up on the screen and I was as excited at home as those in attendance must have been. The USA Tomahawks debut win was good on the Wednesday night, but nothing really compared to that Tuesday night game from Cumbria.

3 November 2013 – Premier Sports – Scotland 30-30 Italy – Group C

I attended more games in the second week, which also saw a few one-sided results creep in, so Scotland were again the pick of the televised games this week. This time Italy were the opponents at Derwent Park and even more tension was evoked through the drawn result. Again Scotland started fast, Matty Russell in particular in sparkling form, but this time were pegged back before half-time, narrowly leading 14-12.

The Bravehearts dipped after half time, as they had against Tonga, as Italy put the pressure on, particularly through dummy half Raymond Nasso. Italy took a 30-26 lead into the final quarter of the game. A brilliant Ben Hellewell try that Brough failed to convert tied the game up on 69 minutes. A bit of luck and a couple of great defencive sets closed the game out in a draw. Not only was the game itself exciting, but it also set up an exciting end to the group as all three teams in the group could still qualify for the quarters.

17 November 2013 – Premier Sports – Samoa 4-22 Fiji – 1/4 Final

The next week brought the quarter finals. The pick of which was always going to be the South Sea Island clash between Fiji and Samoa at Warrington. To be honest, I don’t recall it being that exciting or bruising an encounter and I expected a little more from the game, but it was still the pick of the week.

Samoa lacked organisation and structure in attack and Anthony Milford was sufficiently bottled up that little attacking openings were made. Fiji’s half-backs worked as well as they had all competition and their pack had a little more force at the end of the day.

23 November 2013 – BBC One – New Zealand 20-18 England – 1/2 Final

On to the semis, and the game of the tournament. Probably the game of the year and possibly the best game I’ve watched for many years. England v New Zealand. I had everything really. Great attack, great defence, great skill, great physicality and great drama. The opening hit-up, Sam Tomkins try saving clearance, Graham and Sam Burgess setting Lockers up, Whare’s offload, Sinfield’s pass for Watkins’ try…and that last gasp try to ruin my mood for the rest of weekend.

Looking back, it was a fantastic game, so much to be elated about, but I’ve never felt so deflated by a sporting result. Maybe its bias,  but I thought England were the better team and had more stand out performers on the day. Strong defence and enterprising attack from England was only countered with an exceptional moment of skill and execution by New Zealand in the first half. England nearly cost themselves the game after half time with a sloppy run of penalties, then the game was almost won through some great passing and line running cutting the Kiwis open twice in 10 minutes, only for the game to be lost on some tired efforts and poor decisions in the closing seconds.

England were defending their lead manfully in the face of mounting pressure and got the chance for a clearing set with just over two minutes left. At the end of the set though, the first tired mental error crept in. Kevin Sinfied, having no doubt his greatest representative game to this point, chooses to kick to the most in form winger in the world rather than look to hammer the ball dead in goal or touch and give the defence a short breather. George Burgess, NRL rookie of the year, slipped high on a tired tackle on Sonny Bill Williams as New Zealand come on one last counter. a couple of drives, including a quick scoot by Isaac Luke, left England’s defence on the back foot close to their line. Sinfield unwisely rushed out of the line at Shaun Johnson, whose quick stepping feet were easily able to adjust back inside and past a tired George Burgess with enough speed to get beyond the covering attempts of Sam Burgess and Tomkins. The kick wasn’t easy in the circumstances, but it wasn’t hard enough to put much doubt in the outcome. The kick went through and England fell at the semis again.

I was heartbroken, gutted, deflated. And that was just sat at home watching it alone. My girlfriend, a safe distance away upstairs told me later it was the most animated she’d ever heard me get, but she didn’t realise how flat the result had made me feel. Judging on my Twitter feed, I wasn’t the only one!

So what of the games I attended? Well most of them were pretty special too.

28 October 2013 – Spotland Stadium, Rochdale – Group A – Fiji 30-14 Ireland – Att. 8,872

As was to become a bit of a theme, we were sat in a queue into the town with only half an hour until kick off. I can’t imagine the last time there was such a rush to get into Rochdale. I’d only visited Spotland once before, for a poker tournament. It was nothing like this night.

We got in just before kick off, in the little Sandy Lane Terrace stand. The anthems were sang with spirit and pride, which was taken up a notch with the surprise of the Fiji Bati team hymn instead of the more customary war dance we expect from the Island nations.

There was a lively and fun atmosphere, a lot of the crowd supporting Fiji, but Ireland were well represented too. And the large crowd got what they were expecting from the off with some massive hits put in by Fiji in the first set that I almost felt in the stands.

It wasn’t the physicality of Fiji that did for Ireland in my opinion, it was the speed and finishing ability of their NRL experienced outside backs. Ireland put up a good fight in the first half despite conceding a couple of early tries and some nasty hits from the Fijians. From where I was stood Ashton Sims looked lucky to stay on the pitch for some afters on the floor after being laid out by a great hit – we saw punches thrown on the floor but it wasn’t picked up by officials or cameras apparently and just a penalty resulted. Ref Phil Bentham was at risk of losing control and eventually took action in sin-binning Eloni Vunakece.

In reality Ireland just weren’t creative enough and had little answer for the pace of the Fiji right edge, Akuila Uate getting a hat-trick of tries. An epic downpour began and we timed a chance to dodge the worst of the showers and missed the last couple of minutes where two Ireland garbage time tries were scored. The night belonged to Fiji and to Rochdale. Boy was it wet on the drive home too.

2 November 2013 – John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield – England 42-0 Ireland – Group A – Att. 24,375

A number of ridiculous Saturday lunchtime traffic issues saw us find the car parks full and the anthems playing as we ran up to the stadium. We eventually got in just in time to see replays of Ryan Hall’s opener for England.

We were in The Chadwick Lawrence Stand, the traditional away end at Huddersfield, which meant we were at the wrong end for England’s six try burst in the first half. We could see the spaces being made and the gaps being found, but not the actual touchdowns themselves. The game really was over within 25 minutes when Brett Ferres strolled in for England’s sixth try – at this time Cudjoe, Watkins and Tomkins were tearing Ireland to pieces on the edges and finding free runners next to them for pretty easy scores. Ferres’ bombed chance a couple of minutes later started the scrappiness that was to be endured until the end really.

Ireland offered very little in the way of threat or excitement and the Mexican wave that George the Knight worked tirelessly to get going was about as interesting as things got until the thunder and lightning display coming over the top of the M62.

5 November 2013 – Leigh Sports Village, Leigh – Tonga 22-16 Cook Islands – Group C/D – Att. 10,544

The joys of traffic turning up to stadiums that haven’t ever really had to deal with it before was felt again with more time spent on the A580 than in all my previous trips to Leigh or St Helens put together I reckon. It did give me time to find a taker for our spare ticket on Twitter, though I never had chance to meet the grateful recipient.

Quite a few late comers were rolling in as the anthems were played, and the ground was nicely full for the haka battle. I wasn’t expecting much from the Cooks after watching their last two outings, whereas the Tongans needed to win to keep quarter final hopes alive. Thankfully the game was far more competitive than I anticipated and again came down to the wire for another classic game in this tournament.

It was an exciting first half full of physicality and endeavour. The highlight came just before the break when Conrad Hurrell scored an immense solo effort, crashing through and over most of the Cook Islands defenders to go over for an 18-10 half time Tongan lead.

The Cooks weren’t out of it though and Isaac John had the potential to be the most influential player on the pitch with a controlled performance in the halves. Their true moment of class came through winger Chris Taripo though. He’d already claimed two decent tries in the first half, but is hat-trick try was a very special finish. Watching live I couldn’t call it but the video ref gave the green light to what was one of the tournaments very best finishes. Changing hands and flying through the air, he kept his body in play and just touched the ball down inside the sideline. He even converted from as wide as you can do to bring his side within two points, but the very impressive Jorge Taufua was awarded the try his performance deserved to get some breathing room, but a missed conversion meant a tense finish.

The game had some sublime moments, but it also had two of the most ridiculous moments I’ve seen in a rugby game. One of the Cook Islands’ replacement forwards, who looked like he’d been dragged out of the pub to be fair, got totally turned around in contact and managed to get up and play the ball towards the wrong set of sticks – I’ve never seen a player so comprehensively play the ball the wrong way. The over moment was even more influential on the game. With 10 minutes or so left, Cook Islands worked an opening on their right edge and set winger Jordon Rapana free. All he had to do was touch the ball down, but somehow he managed instead to knee the ball out of his own hands and knock it over the in goal line for a 20m restart.

The Cooks did have another couple of opportunities to score but Tongan held them out and kept qualification hopes alive, albeit out of their hands. We also learnt some local knowledge that a torch is a good idea for the track that allows you to nip through to the housing estate off St Helens Road where we’d parked the car. It allowed for a much quicker trip home than trip in.

7 November 2013 – AJ Bell Stadium, Salford – Scotland 22-8 USA – Group C/D – Att. 6,041

I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to finish work to make the journey to Salford and I didn’t want to see a repeat of the traffic I’d experienced three games in a row beforehand. Instead I got down early. Early enough to get a good standing spot in the North Stand and to watch Ben Fisher go down right at the end of warm ups to put Scotland’s plans in need of a rethink. I’m not sure what Fisher did but I suspect that’s the last we’ll see of him on a playing field.

The first half lacked a little in action, both teams looking a little sluggish after three games in close succession. USA scored two tries and Scotland had two ruled out by the officials but this was the least physical game I’d attended so far and Scotland really were lacking a little spark and timing out of dummy half was off.

For me, the game changing moment came when the super versatile Danny Addy slipped into dummy half around the 50 minute mark. Shortly after Scotland went in for their first try when Brett Phillips hit a Danny Brough short ball with perfect timing to go through the defence.

USA had no answer and Scotland scored three more tries to close the game out with not much threat coming from USA in the final quarter. My ginger beard gives away that I have a bit of Braveheart in me and it was great to see a home nations side being successful after poor stuff from Ireland and Wales.

10 November 2013 – The Shay, Halifax – Tonga 16-0 Italy – Group C – Att. 10,266

The journey over the Pennines wasn’t nice because for some reason my radio was stuck on mute and I had no-one for company either, but the trip was worth it as a Tonga by way of Scotland through grand-parentage fan – I almost felt as qualified as most of the players on show in tartan shorts!

I hadn’t been to The Shay for a decade, and I’m guessing there were a fair few in the 10k+ crowd in a similar position in the jam packed South Terrace. A few home town fans tried to get Halifax chants going, but the bulk of the cheering came for the Tongans, which I was well on board with as it meant Scotland qualification.

The first half was low on scoring but incredibly physical, both in attack and defence from Tonga’s perspective and the crowd loved it. Fuifui Moimoi actually lived up to his reputation and charged to a deserved man of the match vote. There were chances and Italy played some nice stuff but lacked the final pass or the pace and strength out wide to break through successfully. Tonga just couldn’t capitalise off the back of string forward running – they desperately lacked a half back of poise and control. 2-0 Tonga at half time but the crowd were in to the game for sure.

Italy were fairly dominant in field position and possession in the second half but still couldn’t take their chances, whereas Tonga did. There wasn’t much in the way of electrifying attacking skill in this game, but it was a tense physical encounter throughout and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went to this game on my own but found the people of Halifax stood around me to be friendly and knowledgeable so that was a nice plus. Oh, and the radio worked on the way home, but there was dominant coverage of the post-match Man United v Arsenal debrief than the game at The Shay for some reason. All these people missing out!

16 November 2013 – DW Stadium, Wigan – England 34-6 France – 1/4 Final – Att. 22,276

This was another game where I was only just in my seats for the kick off, but this time it was because of the beer queue. I’d been in Wigan all day, combining the occasion with a mate’s birthday and we were a little merry by kick off – truth be told, I don’t remember the game in much detail!

After trying and not really enjoying most of the real ales on offer in The Berkeley whilst we watched Australia rout USA then parts of the yawnion, we moved on to The Anvil, which had a much better selection on offer. We had some Italian food and I think the Peroni we resorted to at that stage pushed me over the line from being able to understand much of the game – not like me these days!

I was still with it enough to appreciate the home town presence in the England side but that was forgotten with the sluggish start by England, letting France in for a fairly soft score.

Sam Tomkins was influential in getting England into the ascendancy on his farewell DW appearance, which probably got him his man of the match award despite the late sin binning. Some decent play by England got both wingers free for scores in quick succession and just like the Ireland game, the match as a contest was over really with England only needing a 20 minute burst to win it.

England gave France plenty of ball and field position either side of half-time but they lacked the invention and execution to do anything and the second half was largely a non-event…I think. I do remember the delightful passing move in the forwards that set Brett Ferres into a nice gap late on despite France having an extra man, but it was back to The Anvil for us before the last train home. It was a fun day, but an average game.

30 November 2013 – Old Trafford, Manchester – New Zealand 2-34 Australia – Final – Att. 74,468

I don’t know about anyone else but I’d only just got over the semi-final and the fact that England wouldn’t be at the game. But hey, at least we’ve have the two best teams in the world facing off yeah?

New Zealand were never going to be favourites, but lots of fans and experts were giving them a chance to retain. In SBW they had arguably the game’s biggest figure and best player. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the world’s in form winger. Isaac Luke has been as threatening as any player in the tournament, and there was try-scoring strike power everywhere.

Australia though weren’t undercooked, and despite plying some easier games, it wasn’t an accident that they hadn’t given up any tries since the England game – they wanted this, 2008 still hurt and 2017 might not come for some.

On the way we discussed if we would want to have lost to the champions so see a Kiwi win or not. I just couldn’t see it and if that were the case then there would be too much regret from an England view as we should have been there – the heartbreak would continue. It was already all we could talk about on the way to Manchester!

To round things off in typical fashion, we only just made the start, catching the haka in the concourse before finding our seats as the kick off went up. This time some broken farm machinery and a detour to Orrell put us behind schedule.

In reality, it wasn’t the end to the tournament that what had gone in the five weeks previous deserved. People were asking whether New Zealand didn’t turn up, or whether Australia were than good. Others suggested England tired the Kiwis out the week before. I think it was just an incredibly professional and driven performance by the Aussies. Their defence was every bit as good as the stats suggested. Their attention and relentlessness in the earlier rounds against lesser teams had drilled them for this. They controlled the speed of the ruck, bottled Isaac Luke up and contained SBW. It was clinical and dominant. No breaks allowed all game. Phenomenal.

On the other side the kangaroos were far better too. The kick that set up the opening try was almost impossible to defend. Inventive and enterprising kicking was a theme that set up most of Australia’s scoring opportunities in the first half.

Man of the match Jonathan Thurston then took to opening New Zealand up any which way he could and some brilliant team interplay got a try straight after half-time, which was a hammer blow to New Zealand. Despite 20 offloads still they couldn’t find a way through and Australia just kept driving their supremacy home.

The one-sided nature and result being clear early in the second half took plenty away from the occasion, but take nothing away from that Australia display. Well and truly deserve to be back in place as world champs. Sure, we can think England would have given them more of a game. Heck, the atmosphere would have had something extra-special about it had we made it. But in reality, playing like that, no-one would be a match for that green and gold performance. A tribute to their brilliance is the fitting way to go out on this review, that memory will endure. Bring on 2017 eh!?

Original article: http://markillsport.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/my-world-cup-memories.html

Big sports fan (Wigan Warriors, Manchester United, Pittsburgh Steelers, Lancashire County Cricket Club, St. Johnstone). Walking enthusiast.

Comments

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  1. slickmick says:

    Great stuff. Here’s to another RLWC in 4 years hopefully…remains to be seen whether the Bravehearts will even be in existence to participate…but the response to this tournament has been very positive.

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