Pockets of light eclipse Cup gloom

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The headiest moment of the first week of the World Cup came when news of the crowd at Hull for the Australia v Russia match hit the nation's sports desks.

The headiest moment of the first week of the World Cup came when news of the crowd at Hull for the Australia v Russia match hit the nation's sports desks.

On the face of it, an attendance of 30,000 was little short of sensational, especially as The Boulevard could not possibly hold that many. Sure enough, an extra nought had slipped into the figure; a modest 3,044 had watched the world champions put 110 points past the rank outsiders.

In those two figures, much of the problem with the group stage of the tournament is encapsulated. There have been too many one-sided matches and too many empty seats and terraces. There has been a strong impression of too little talent and too few spectators stretched too thinly.

The worst night so far was probably at Llanelli, a genuine rugby hotbed where only 1,497 were interested enough to turn out on a foul night to watch Wales play the Lebanon. The Wales manager, Mike Nicholas, called it an embarrassment and he was not overstating the case. Wales did attract a comparatively respectable crowd to Wrexham on an equally vile night - have there been any other sort? - and while 17,000 did not come close to even half filling the Millennium Stadium for the New Zealand match, it was still the biggest gate for a rugby league fixture in Wales since the war.

Besides, it would be wrong for the game to get too hung up on crowd figures. When the decision was made to take matches all over the British Isles and France, it should also have been accepted that that would mean some fairly empty grounds in places.

The point of the exercise is not just breadth of support for which the World Cup has clearly struggled, but also depth of appeal. The competition might not have attracted vast numbers, but some of those new to the game will stick to it for life and become the pioneers in the new areas that the code needs to foster if it is to broaden the base of its pyramid.

It is also fair to say that not every crowd has been disastrous. Take Workington, for instance. Starved of top-class rugby for several years and down to a few hundred diehards for most matches in the Northern Ford Premiership these days, the town saw 4,000 through the turnstiles for Samoa v New Zealand Maori, one of the games that the prophets of doom said would attract absolutely nobody.

The tournament has also been a monumental success in France, and for the game in Toulouse to attract more than 10,000 on a midweek afternoon is a triumph for a code that has had to fight there for its very existence.

Even the Papua New Guinea versus Tonga match at St Esteve on Monday night attracted a decent crowd and generated more atmosphere than some France versus Great Britain Tests.

In many ways, that was the most heartening night of the whole competition so far. Two well-matched teams battled it out in front of an appreciative and knowledgeable crowd and the winners, PNG, are already national heroes back home.

That is something that people in Britain forget when they look at the superficial evidence and deduce that the World Cup so far has been a flop. For England and Wales, compared with 1995, it has been. But it is not just our World Cup; it belongs to France and Papua New Guinea as well, not to mention the Cook Islands and the Lebanon, who played out such a memorable draw at Cardiff on Sunday.

That, of course, has been the other complaint. There has not, as far as the casual observer is concerned, yet been the truly classic match to light it up. Not unless you happened to be at Workington perhaps, at Ireland's second game in Dublin, at St Esteve or at the Millennium Stadium early enough to watch the Cooks and the Lebs.

There is time enough for that, though. The England versus Ireland quarter-final on Saturday has all the grudges building up to make it a beauty. PNG could beat Wales and Australia and New Zealand are still heading for a collision in the final.

The best is yet to come, but what we have had so far has been nothing like as bad as it has been painted.

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