A League of Nations

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Wed 30th Oct 2013, 20:00 – Group D
Attendance: 7,247 – Venue: Memorial Stadium, Bristol.
USA 32 (20) VS. Cook Islands (12) 20
Admission 10.00 (standing), group programme 4.00.

Sat 16th Nov 2013, 20:00 – Quarter Finals.
Attendance: 22,276 – Venue: DW Stadium, Wigan.
England 34 (26) VS. France (6) 6
Admission 30.00 (seated), programme 5.00.

Sun 17th Nov 2013, 15:00 – Quarter Finals.
Attendance: 12,766 – Venue: Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington.
Samoa 4 (0) VS. Fiji (18) 22
Admission 20.00 (standing), programme 5.00.

Sat 23rd November, 13:00 – ‘The Big Hit’, Semi Finals Day.
Attendance 67,545 – Venue: Wembley Stadium.
New Zealand 20 (8) VS. England (8) 18
Admission 50.00 (seated), programme 6.00 (covered both games).

Saturday 23rd November, 15:00 – ‘The Big Hit’ Semi finals Day.
Attendance 67,545 – Venue: Wembley Stadium.
Australia 64 (34 ) VS. Fiji (0) 0
Admission- as above- programme as above.

I’ve had a month since the Final on Nov 30th at Old Trafford to reflect on this wonderful tournament. During the Autumn of 2000, the last time we had the World Cup on these shores I had dipped my toes in and watched two England games at Twickenham and Leeds Headingley. Both of which were thoroughly enjoyed, and I had made a vow at the time to make more of an effort to watch Rugby League live.

As it has turned out, since, I’ve only actually watched two live games, one at Castleford (v Halifax, 2002), and one at London Broncos (v Leeds, 2013). The main reason I guess being the time and effort I’ve spent visiting new football grounds and also collecting the Speedway tracks of England/Scotland and Europe. So for me personally, this WC tournament was a real wake up call to get my finger out, and dedicate some serious time  and effort to visit the Rugby League and even possibly some new Rugby Union grounds of our fair islands.

The final itself was a disappointment. Whether NZ had given too much of themselves in the ‘battle of Wembley’ v England in semi, or whether the Aussie team were just man for man too strong, is hard to say. But Australia regained the trophy they had lost to New Zealand in Brisbane in 2008, winning 34-2 and in the process Old Trafford recorded an international record crowd of 74,468. A more fitting final would have been the NZ/Eng Semi.

But the tournament for me had started at a windy and drizzly dark night at the Memorial stadium in Bristol. Home to Bristol Rovers FC and Bristol RFU, so hardly a Rugby league heartland. Yet 7,500 turned out to watch the minnows of ‘The Cook Islands’ and the debut making ‘USA’. The vast majority of the crowd, who created a carnival atmosphere were backing the Cooks. After they performed their version of the Haka the game started with them on the front foot, but as the game progressed the USA grew stronger, and early in the second half they took a stranglehold on the game to eventually win by 12 points. Did it make the back page of USA sports pages? I doubt it, it should have though.

Cook Islanders
Cook Islanders

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A packed terrace in Bristol
A packed terrace in Bristol

 Although my next games were not until the Quarter final stages, I was reading and hearing of great games and very good crowds at unlikely places such as Rochdale, Workington and Wrexham. Huddersfields John Smiths Stadium recorded its first ever full house for a sports fixture for England’s group game against Ireland and Rochdale FC’s ‘Spotland’ had a full house and the locals backing Fiji! The Scots took up residence, bag pipes an all at Derwent Park, Workington. But my next game was at Wigan’s ‘DW stadium’, the home of Wigan Athletic FC and Wigan RFL team, a super league giant. Although not a complete sell out, it was close to it, and although our seats were a little disappointing with a poor view, being down by a corner flag, England cantered to a fairly easy 34-6 victory over France, job done, a Wembley SF guaranteed.

DW Stadium, Wigan.
DW Stadium, Wigan.

   

World Cup Girls.
World Cup Girls.
St George, but no dragon.
St George, but no dragon.

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Kevin Sinfield.
Kevin Sinfield.

The following day, I had a terrace ticket at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington for the South Sea Island QF match up of Samoa v Fiji. Ros decided on the day, as the weather was too gloomy to visit anywhere else to purchase a terrace ticket as well. As a ground collector, I only had one word to describe the HJ Stadium, ‘Wow’. Purpose-built for the Warrington Wolves and opened in 2004, it is exactly what all new build football grounds ‘should be’, were it not for the Taylor reports insistence on all seater stadium. Frankly the stadium knocked spots off the rather soulless DW Stadium. The 15,200 capacity HJ has one side of a steeply raked covered terracing, where we stood at the back, one end behind the goal is also terraced, with the main stand opposite, with another stand of seats off to our right. The crowd created a fantastic atmosphere.

It’s hard to describe how emotional one (I) can (did) get about two countries you’d struggle to pinpoint on a map, but pre-match, we were treated to the national anthems of both countries. With muscle toned fit athletes standing and holding each other shoulder to shoulder blasting out their anthems whilst gently swaying side to side. The Fijians in particular have a very jaunty anthem, that seems to confirm their Island as being deeply religious. Then the Samoan’s got into position, the crowd hushed, as they performed their war dance, called ‘The Manu Siva Tau’ in front of the Fijians, mikes placed on the pitch to pick out their guttural chants. An enormous round of applause followed it, before silence again, and the Fijian’s get in a circle, and blast out their hymn, like they were a professional choir. At the end, I admit to having wet eyes, I looked at Ros and she was beaming from ear to ear, this was pure theatre, ‘pure sport’ and you just knew these two teams would give everything they could to make it to the Semi Finals at Wembley Stadium.

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Samoan war dance!
Samoan war dance!

And a Fiji Hymn!

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The fantastic Halliwell Jones Stadium.
The fantastic Halliwell Jones Stadium.

For a flavour of the haka’s/wardances and hymns performed by NZ/Samao/Tonga and Fiji at the WC, see;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFkuUE9TXOk

What ensued was as I’ve told people since, one of the most enjoyable sporting events I’ve ever witnessed. The Samoan’s who had been based in Warrington had the backing of the locals, who regularly chanted ‘Whoaaaaa Samoaaa’. Due to my ignorance of League, I had expected Samoa to be too strong for Fiji. How wrong I was. It would seem that Samoa are a stronger ‘Union’ playing nation. Fiji were the keenest, quicker and sharper in their passing. The physicality of the game was a sight to behold, no holds barred tackling, which a couple of times threatened to get out of hand, but didn’t. Fiji won the respect of the local crowd and won many new fans with their display. In summary, great venue, great theatre, great game, great crowd, enjoyment factor 10/10 🙂

Sat 23rd Nov, a rare ‘non football’ Saturday for me, as I took the train and tube to Wembley Stadium. I’d splashed out on a fifty pound ticket for the ‘Big Hit’ Semi Finals, and was chuffed to find I was in the Club Wembley area. Not the area opposite the TV cameras, but the Club Wembley on the camera side. Very spacious concourses with so many more places to buy food and drink, a diner style cafe, it really was very nice indeed. My friend Steve had also purchased a ticket and was a block down, and after finding I had a seat free next to me, nearer the half way line in the middle tier, he joined me for the second half of the England game. And what a game it turned out to be, as holders NZ were still ‘slight’ favourites to beat England, but England after a shaky opening minutes looked determined to be at Old Trafford, Sam Burgess was dominant, Hall and Charnley impressive on the wings, and Graham a rock in the middle. The atmosphere was amazing, with many New Zealanders in the crowd. After a phenomenal game of RL which you couldn’t take your eyes off, with 1 minute to go, yes just 1 minute away from the World Cup final, England were 18-14  to the good. A try 15 mins from the end from Burgess and a conversion from Sinfield, and the crowd were on the edge of their seats anticipating celebrating reaching the final.

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Then with 20 seconds left on the clock, NZ after some serious last five-minutes of pressure in the England last quarter finally scored a try from Shaun Johnson, all around could be seen England fans with heads in hands, New Zealanders dancing around like they had just won the world cup. Sport can be very cruel as well as life affirming. That man again Johnson kept his cool and converted the kick, 20-18, all over, England out.  The mood around Wembley had changed in a matter of minutes.

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It didn’t hurt me as deep to my soul as it had when I was at Wembley in 1996, when England lost on penalties to Germany in the Euros in ‘my sport’, but I was never the less absolutely gutted. The England players stood, sat, drained, unbelieving, they had given so much on the day, and probably deserved to have gone through on the balance of play.

What followed was a procession, as Australia dumped Fiji 64-0, in such a one-sided game of sport, that of the 67,000 who’d been present for the Eng v NZ Semi, only about 15-20,000 remained at the end. A real case of ‘After the Lords Mayors Show’, it’s a shame the draw hadn’t fallen the other way round with the Eng game being the main course of the day.

Jubilant New Zealanders.
Jubilant New Zealanders.

On reflection, in some ways I rediscovered so much in watching the Rugby in the WC that I feel has been lost in football, especially at the higher levels of the professional football game. Honesty, committment, a feeling that the players were giving their all, but that they had a deep respect for their sport (and the referees), and if they lost, yes they might cry (as some of the Samoan’s did at Warrington and England players did at Wembley), but ultimately they knew, that their Sport, and this competition was the winner. Hopefully the BBC exposure of the tournament turned many new fans onto RL. Especially with it being such a Northern dominated code. There is such a deep ingrained intolerance to League in Union territories, personally as a spectator sport I believe it’s miles ahead of Union, with its continual stoppages and scrums. So, I shall keeping a close eye on the progress and attendances of the likes of the London Skolars, Oxford and Hemel Rugby League Clubs, and live in hope that the re-emergence from administration of The London Broncos with their new venture of ground sharing at ‘The Hive’ with Barnet FC, will be a positive one. And I shall be stepping into more Rugby League grounds during the Spring/Summer of 2014, if you haven’t experienced it as a live sport, you should.

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As sung in Warrington, and at Wembley…..

Blessing grant oh God of nations on the isles of Fiji
As we stand united under noble banner blue
And we honour and defend the cause of freedom ever
Onward march together
God bless Fiji

CHORUS:
For Fiji, ever Fiji, let our voices ring with pride
For Fiji, ever Fiji, her name hail far and wide,
A land of freedom, hope and glory, to endure what ever befall
May God bless Fiji
Forever more!

Blessing grant, oh God of nations, on the isles of Fiji
Shores of golden sand and sunshine, happiness and song
Stand united, we of Fiji, fame and glory ever
Onward march together
God bless Fiji.

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