Best of the best is yet to come

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As a devoted fan of rugby league, I'm all in favour of using the World Cup to spread the gospel, but so far there's been too much preaching to the unconverted, which has allowed the game's critics to make snide comments about low crowds.

As a devoted fan of rugby league, I'm all in favour of using the World Cup to spread the gospel, but so far there's been too much preaching to the unconverted, which has allowed the game's critics to make snide comments about low crowds.

This is a shame, because it has taken the shine off some excellent rugby. Some of the countries may have looked to be hastily assembled but they have performed with great passion and pride, and I'm sure that the growth of rugby league around the world will have been helped as a result.

Most of the games have been well worth watching, and matches such as the 22-22 draw between the Cook Islands and Lebanon were fiercely contested affairs that brought credit to both teams. Samoa versus the New Zealand Maori was another I enjoyed, and the standard of the group containing France, Papua New Guinea and Tonga was great. The discipline has also been superb. The tackling has been devastating but the tempers have been well controlled. We've hardly seen a yellow card.

The problem at this level is that some of the lesser teams can't keep up with the pace, especially in defence. That's when the better, more experienced outfits get right on top and some of the games turn out to be one-sided. But you get this in all world tournaments. New Zealand's 147-17 whacking of Japan in the 1995 rugby union World Cup balances any criticism in this department.

This weekend should see the tournament take a better shape. Today's encounters ought to be very interesting. New Zealand, who look to be in great shape, are likely to be too strong even for the improving French team at Castleford.

Less predictable will be the outcome of Wales v Papua New Guinea at Widnes. Wales should be back to near full strength after being weakened by injury, and hope to be reinforced by my former team-mates John Devereux and Paul Moriarty, but Samoa will bring that South Seas power to what is bound to be a stirring battle.

When I hear people moaning about the weakness of emerging countries I think back nine years, to when the Welsh side were resurrected to a chorus of doubts. We managed to prove them wrong by reaching the semi-finals of the 1995 World Cup, but we were fortunate to have much greater strength in depth than the present squad. Several have had little or no Super League experience and, what with injuries, the team have not reached their peak; but with Iestyn Harris and Keiron Cunningham around it would be premature to write them off.

It's also too soon to write off this World Cup. I'm sure that it will continue to be dominated by Australia and New Zealand, but they are capable of showing us some brilliant rugby. What's more, I am delighted that the final stages will be played in rugby league country. The semis are at Bolton and Huddersfield and the final is at Old Trafford. The big mistake has been to include too many grounds where the game has little support. I can understand the thinking behind staging the England-Australia match at Twickenham, but it was a mistake. For various reasons, Twickenham was half-empty, and that didn't create a good impression.

The marketing was just as poor. No cash-back deals, no arrangements with the schools. There was a mess-up with the tickets at Llanelli and 5,000 couldn't get into the Millennium Stadium last Sunday.

I hate to criticise, but as the official Welsh ambassador for the Rugby League World Cup I'm entitled to have a say. It was an honour to receive that title but it didn't allow me to get involved. I would have been delighted to advise them where to stage the games and I'm sure that goes for Phil Clarke, who is England's ambassador.

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