Fans fail to flock in corridor of uncertainty

Dave Hadfield says the World Cup exposed league's flimsy footing
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The Independent Online

Even before the final act at Old Trafford yesterday, the post-mortem had begun into a World Cup that promised so much and delivered such a mixture of the brilliant and the banal.

Even before the final act at Old Trafford yesterday, the post-mortem had begun into a World Cup that promised so much and delivered such a mixture of the brilliant and the banal.

The failure of the available British talent - split into four home nations for the first, and possibly last, time - to figure in the final and the patchy support for games spread throughout the British Isles and France have already produced some predictable reactions.

What might be termed the "back to the bunker" tendency will tell anyone who will listen that it was all doomed from the start and should never have been attempted. We should have stuck to what we know, stuck to the M62.

This is to ignore the fact that some of the most disappointing crowds were precisely along that familiar corridor: at Hull, Widnes and for the semi-finals at Bolton and Huddersfield. Sure enough, there were some sparse attendances elsewhere, and the Welsh manager, Mike Nicholas', description of the 1,400 at Llanelli as "embarrassing" holds good, but supporters in the game's heart- lands did not get behind the competition.

Again, there were excep-tions, such as a gratifying 4,000 in Workington, but the World Cup failed to capture the imagination of the game's supporters in the way that its predecessor in 1995 did. To imagine that was because the games were in strange places is to miss the point.

Special circumstances conspired against the World Cup. If there has ever been a wetter, wilder autumn month, it was surely before the Great Split of 1895. With roads clogged and trains not running, there were some matches - like the England v Australia opener at Twickenham - for which people bought tickets and then didn't go. There was also confusion with ticketing at some venues, with would-be spectators being told that cheaper tickets were sold out when there was, in fact, plenty of room. It was an extra problem the tournament did not need.

Its real problem was more deep-seated. The lack of real enthusiasm for this World Cup, especially by comparison with its predecessor five years ago, can only partly be explained by this tournament falling at the end of a long domestic campaign and the last one being in a specially-created window in the last winter season.

The intervening five years have seen Super League attendances edge upwards, but that has not been reflected at international level. There should be no satisfaction for Super League in that; in fact, they should take some of the blame.

The reluctance of that organisation to foster inter-national competition - to give it priority over club rugby, if necessary - has been partly responsible for the degree of apathy with which many have greeted it. There needs to be some continuity, some ongoing commitment, if people are to believe in the significance of international rugby.

Chris Caisley, the chairman of Super League, has already poured cold water on the idea of a Five Nations competition slotted into the Super League season. That is the sort of encouragement that Wales, France, Scotland and Ireland are being given after their varying degrees of success in the tournament.

France has been the most successful sector of the whole World Cup, with excellent crowds and a new surge of optimism running through the game in a country where it has had to fight for its very existence. One could not really claim the same for Wales, although the 17,000 at the Millennium Stadium amounted to the best crowd for a rugby league match there since the war. When Nicholas, Clive Griffiths and Iestyn Harris appeal for a Super League club in Wales, they sound like echoes of 1995, when the case was overwhelmingly strong and the game did not have the courage to seize the chance.

The Welsh this time will have to be content with the memories from a marvellous effort against Australia in their semi-final last Sunday. When Lee Briers leapt to take Harris's kick and score their third try in nine minutes for a 10-point lead, it was the most magical moment of the whole World Cup.

The worst was when England's defence opened up like a creaky gate to allow New Zealand to begin the massacre at Bolton the day before. That was the point at which many home supporters lost interest in the 2000 World Cup. But the fact that England's best players were not good enough is not proof that we should stick to fostering the game in its traditional areas.

What it really shows is that neither the playing base nor the support base for the game in this country is broad enough to keep it as a going concern.

In that respect, the World Cup was at least trying to do the right thing.