A tribute band are chanting Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and cheerleaders shake their pompoms. Red and silver floodlights bathe the Millennium Stadium as an electronic harp is played. A dancing gymnast twirls through the sky while attached to a giant, floating globe. Drunk, enthusiastic men are on their feet, clapping.
Where on earth am I? If I hadn’t just seen Gareth Thomas mock-run across the pitch to music better suited to a horror movie, then I would have guessed I had been transported to a very odd broadcast of Gladiators. That, or my 13th-birthday roller-disco party, where no one ever told me that less equals more.
But, no, the floating globe is my clue. I am at the Rugby League World Cup in Cardiff, watching the opening ceremony, surrounded by people who are clearly very, very excited to see both England play Australia and Wales take on Italy.
Forgive me my confusion. I have never watched a game of rugby, never mind attended a live match. But I have heard that the World Cup is league’s big chance to reach beyond its core demographic – traditionally concentrated along the M62 – so I thought I’d give it a shot (despite being a proud Mancunian).
The League have definitely pulled out all the stops. Around 1,500 people are performing in this spectacle. AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is now echoing around the arena. Hundreds of dancers and children are performing as part of the wider £1 million arts ceremony; fireworks are going off, and I am told that a “Rugby League Great” is on the screen (I have never seen his face before in my life).
Glancing up, I think the whole event looks better on TV. More polished. Shame really, as I hear BBC Sport are not even covering the ceremony. I am just starting to get into it – you can get a ticket for £12, don’t you know? – but then people start singing the National Anthem and men wearing army uniform run on to the pitch (and I start wondering why patriotism always has to be shoehorned into sport).
But there’s not much time for contemplation. The first game is about to kick off. I have been told that league is the “toughest sport in the world” and the men are “hard as nails.” As someone who gets queasy at the mere mention of the word “macho”, I’m not exactly enthused.
They’re physically fit, I’ll give them that. But after only 10 minutes my face hurts from having scrunched it up so much. Every time the ball moves, someone is aggressively pushed to the ground; thighs and heads collide, and I pull faces I didn’t even know I could make. I don’t want to be the token sport-hating woman, but couldn’t the players run a little bit longer and crash into each other a little less?
Now I’ve mentioned the “W” word, it’s worth noting that the World Cup’s general manager, Sally Bolton, is one. Why is this notable? Well, only because women rarely oversee major sporting championships, and Bolton recently told The Independent on Sunday that the past year signalled a “really significant step change in awareness and interest in women’s sport.”
I might be watching men play men while tens of thousands of other men chant and cheer, but most other women in the crowd seem to be enjoying the game. Like me, Zoey French, 32, from Horwich, has never been to a rugby match before, despite working for the company who make the Welsh players’ kit.
“I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, but I know England need to win,” she tells me, before adding that the day has been “brilliant” and she will “definitely come back”.
Her colleague offers up the sort of “jokey” sexism I remember from my days watching Manchester United with my dad. “It’s easier for women to understand the rules than it is with football,” he tells me, as his partner assures me that in fact the opposite is true. Rosie Wareham, 27, a returns administrator at W H Smith, likes the fact that it’s “a butch sport” which is less divisive than football. “At rugby league, you all come together. It’s lovely; more welcoming.”
I definitely feel welcome, but the action hasn’t drawn me in. Not because I’m a woman, mind, but because listening to cheesy music and watching chunky rugby players collide is just not my thing. All is not lost, though; the World Cup whirlwind has definitely attracted some converts and teased some rugby-obsessed fans back into the fold.
Gary Lown, a 52-year-old ambulance driver from Devon, used to love league in his teens but then “fell out” and into the union code. Back with his son-in-law, a first-timer, he tells me the game is “different now; more glamorous”.
How, I ask. “Well, you’d never have seen a referee in a pink outfit back then,” he says. You see, things do change.