Fraternity rules in the friendly heartland

RUGBY LEAGUE CENTENARY WORLD CUP Greg Wood enjoys the spirit of true sportsmanship pervading the tournament
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The Independent Online
When the kick went through the posts to tie the game with 30 seconds left, it was almost too much for one spectator. He was left wide-eyed, trembling with excitement, shaking his head in disbelief. "Great," he kept saying. "It's just bloody great." No one who was there will forget the day that the Rugby League Centenary World Cup came to Humberside.

Football and cricket are just as capable as rugby league of reducing grown men to quivering delight, but the fascination at The Boulevard in Hull on Tuesday night was that the emotion had nothing to do with patriotism or self-interest. Papua New Guinea against Tonga on a warm evening in Hull would have a certain novelty value whatever the sport, but it was more than simple curiosity which persuaded 5,121 people, almost twice the average gate for Hull FC's home matches, through the turnstiles. Followers of rugby league, it seems, care about the game, not the match.

This fact was clearly lost on those who were claiming, only a week ago, that the World Cup had been undersold, that no one would watch unless England were playing Australia. At The Boulevard, they did more than just watch. There was applause for every run, a roar for each broken tackle, and a gasp and a wince for every one which stopped its target in his tracks.

After the first half, Tonga led 20-0, and allegiance inevitably shifted to their opponents. "It was amazing," Max Tiri, Papau New Guinea's vice- captain, said. "We could feel that they were right behind us as we started to pull back." When the hooter sounded at 28-28, season-ticket holders of 30 years standing could not remember seeing a better match.

Out on the terraces, one voice had been shouting for PNG from the kick- off. It belonged to the owner of a local jeans shop, for whom the World Cup had brought a welcome upturn in sales. "Half the team came in and they bought about 10 pairs each," he said. "I've never seen so many rock- hard calves in my life. They wanted some funny sizes too, like a 34 waist and a 38 leg, but we managed to sort them all out. They were great, really friendly, and they made sure we got tickets for the match."

Tickets were harder to come by in Wigan 24 hours later, when a full house of 26,000 crammed into Central Park to see England play Fiji, and the kick-off was delayed to pack them all in. "I paid a tout for three seats and he gave me one seat and two standing," one fan complained in a rare lapse of the rugby league spirit. "I said I'd rip his head off if he didn't give me what I'd paid for," he added, as he and his two companions settled into their seats. "But what do you expect? They're all cockneys, up from London."

So, it was goodwill to all men, except cockneys. Oh, and Liverpudlians. "All scousers are sinners," a salvationist preached by the main gate. "Neville Southall may be able to save a goal, but he can't save his soul." But these minor outbreaks of insularity went no further. When the announcer asked everyone to stand for the anthems, they did, just as they had at The Boulevard. A single cry of "England" during the Fijian anthem brought embarrassed hushing from every corner of the Popular stand.

It should not have been surprising, but it was. They say that the atmosphere at rugby league is how football used to be 30 or 40 years ago, with children arranged along the pitch-side wall, a raffle at half-time and the hard men on the turf, not the terraces. When the game kicked off, the only thing missing in the fevered support for England was a pair of blinkers. The visitors were never in the match, crushed 46-0 by an exceptional England side, but at the end there were three cheers for Fiji, and all but a handful of the spectators stayed to applaud their lap of honour. It is difficult to imagine a similar scene after a football international at Wembley.

Things could change with the arrival of Rupert Murdoch and the Super League, but the tycoon surely knows when to leave a successful formula alone. He will be delighted, too, by the injection of interest the World Cup should provide. It has, so far, been adroitly organised. The wise decision to postpone domestic matches for the Cup's duration must have played a significant part in the arrival of 40,000 fans at Wembley for the opening match, while the tournament format, which goes a long way to guaranteeing an England-Australia final, should bring many more back to the stadium in two weeks' time.

The other teams will return home with less glory, but drenched in experience, not least the knowledge that the sun does sometimes shine in England. "Normally when our guys are over here it's starting to get a bit cold," Martin Adamson, general manager of the League in PNG, says. "This time they've been lucky, and its been marvellous for them to experience the facilities here and to play at such a high level, and the public response has been terrific. Whenever a try is scored, British crowds clap the scorer and the whole team as they go back into position. That's something that doesn't happen at home."

It will, you suspect, always happen here. The spirit of rugby league demands it, the same spirit which persuaded a player from Papua New Guinea to break away from the lap of honour at The Boulevard and seek out the man who had sold him some trousers. "That was typical. He just wanted to make sure we'd got the tickets," the shop owner said afterwards, and then he laughed. "Oh, and he says the jeans don't fit."