Rugby League World Cup: Warm-up is just like a roller-disco for very big scary blokes

Newcomer to league is shaken but not stirred as she attends the tournament’s opening ceremony at the Millennium Stadium

Millennium Stadium

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape