Rugby League World Cup: England need to stop their world falling apart

The World Cup starts at the Millennium Stadium with organisers praying for close games and for Steve McNamara's men to pull themselves together

Cardiff

Storm warnings. The sun shone in Cardiff but the roof of the Millennium Stadium remained shut, as it will be for the opening of the World Cup, the ceremony to launch the tournament and then the double header, one set of hosts playing Australia before the others take on Italy. This is largely England's tournament but it will begin in Wales, and how it needs a good beginning.

The forecast is dire for the opening days with amber warnings coming out of the Met Office – terrible weather did plenty to take the shine off the last World Cup here 13 years ago – but the gloominess within the stadium had nothing to do with the gathering clouds. Steve McNamara, England's coach and a man looking beleaguered before a ball is kicked, threatened to walk out of his pre-event press conference as he faced a string of questions over reports half a dozen of his players went out drinking after their disastrous warm-up defeat by Italy last weekend.

In the end McNamara did cut his conference short – the coach exiting sharply stage left, claiming he had to catch the team bus. He was spotted a few minutes later chatting with officials at the top of the players' tunnel as his team ambled out of the stadium. "Hilarious," observed an amused Australian journalist. There are not many sporting fields where the Australians can look down on the Poms right now but this is one.

Tim Sheens, Australia's coach, said the fact England were embarrassed could make them dangerous. His audience thought him half right.

Out on the pitch the rehearsal for the opening ceremony was under way with a local band running through various numbers garnered from rock's back catalogue. Highway To Hell echoed around the empty stadium. It is not an obvious number for an opening ceremony, but it caught the mood around this England team.

With dissent mounting in the domestic game and a lack of top-end sponsorship threatening to limit its horizons, this is a World Cup that badly needs a successful England if it is to do what the organisers hope, what the organisers of every global tournament in every sport beneath football's World Cup hope: spread the word beyond the gathered faithful.

Look beyond the hosts and there are reasons to be cheerful for the organisers, a possible silver lining to the dark clouds. "It may not be rugby as we know it," began a Cardiff newspaper's coverage of the tournament as it happily predicted a crowd of 50,000 this afternoon. There were whispers around the Millennium that it may push comfortably beyond that.

At whatever number the turnstiles stop clicking it will be better than the 41,000 who set the record for an opening World Cup game at the 1995 tournament and will be a decent first step towards the target of half a million tickets, nearly double the amount for the 2000 event, the last time it was held on these shores. England's second game at Huddersfield has sold out while sales for the semi-final double header at Wembley are healthy.

Among the crowd at Wembley will be more than 200 players, friends and family from the Medway Dragons club in Kent. Sales to the South-east have surprised organisers. But they insist they have the right balance between keeping matches in the heartlands and dipping toes into uncharted waters. There will be games in Limerick and Bristol, as well as in France.

Martin Coyd founded his Kentish outpost six years ago so his sons could play league. It now has over 200 players across the age groups. Coyd will be in the crowd, with "his band of brothers".

"It's huge," he says of the tournament. "Coming quickly on the back of the Olympic Games, it is an opportunity to follow up on that. People are hungry for almost exotic international sport."

But it is an outlook balanced by the realities of having been a missionary in a foreign sporting land, the south of England, for so long. "I don't think we are in for any launch to a new era of rugby league," said Coyd. "Sport is a pretty tough place at this moment in time. I don't think there is going to be a massive change but there is an opportunity to be able to observe the game and grow some respect for rugby league and the people who play it."

Rekindling some form of Olympic spirit is a familiar theme among those involved with the World Cup. One fundamental difference is that Olympic events were sold out before it began. This tournament needs sales once it starts, which makes what England do this afternoon so important. Only the most optimistic can see a home win but two good games, two close games, would at least allow the World Cup to gain a foothold in the nation's sporting consciousness, one preoccupied by football, the impending Ashes and, mention it sotte voce, the start of the other code's autumn internationals.

Thank God then, the organisers should be saying, for the novelty that is Italy. Their victory over England has added some rare intrigue, even though the tournament will almost certainly boil down to a semi-final line up of Australia, the holders New Zealand, England and AN Other. Italy provided a breath of much-needed fresh air.

The names were right even if the sound is not Italian – the voices were straight out of New South Wales and Salford – and don't dare accuse them, respectively captain Anthony Minichiello and coach Carlo Napolitano, of not being Italian, even if this is a tournament that would leave Jack Wilshere's head spinning. Petero Civoniceva, with 45 caps for Australia, will captain Fiji, the country of his birth; Australia's Clint Greenshields is France's main man; Samoa's David Fa'alogo was part of New Zealand's winning squad five years ago. Minichiello has 19 Australia caps.

Napolitano bristled when asked to defend his squad's Italian-ness, and to be fair to his sport their union cousins, and plenty of others too, have become bogged down in nationality issues.

"I don't really think it warrants comment," he said when questioned about how Italian the Italian team is. "I can say quite honestly and very seriously that every one of my players is proud to represent Italy and I am very, very proud to lead them."

The Italians wondered off through the stadium's innards, pausing to look at the signed shirts of union nations who have played here. They gave every indication of being pleased, thrilled even to be here. They will be back this afternoon to take on Wales, their World Cup debut. They offer the tournament and the sport hope, a hope that was not easy to find.

"If we're talking about the global game then we have to look at developing these smaller nations to become bigger nations," said Napolitano. "Fun is a major part of what we are. Our motto has always been 'one family', 'una famiglia'. That's what we've got, that's why people want to play for Italy. It's not about the money, it's about where we come from and where we are going to."

"Welcome to the world," say the banners at Cardiff station. They are welcoming the world to a music festival in the Welsh capital. Signs of the World Cup are harder to find.

"With rugby league you have to play the long game," said Coyd. "I don't think the World Cup will see a massive step change but it can give us credibility in what is a very tough market, for people's time and money. We have to use this as an opportunity to capture people's imagination."

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