Without fuss, the citadelis stormed

Andrew Longmore watches the quiet revolution as history is made
Click to follow
The Independent Online

These are early days in the tournament to be debating the wisdom of the disparate format of the Lincoln Rugby League World Cup, but rule No1 in any event is to pack the house for the opening game. Then everyone thinks they might be missing something. Nothing looks worse than a match that no one seems to be bothered about.

These are early days in the tournament to be debating the wisdom of the disparate format of the Lincoln Rugby League World Cup, but rule No1 in any event is to pack the house for the opening game. Then everyone thinks they might be missing something. Nothing looks worse than a match that no one seems to be bothered about.

Television schedules, with both BBC and Sky as host broadcasters, did not help the cause, but when the BBC cameras flicked to Windsor Park, Belfast, for the build-up to the crackerjack event they had been advertising only to find an empty stand, you felt for the organisers, not least the dedicated crew who have been preaching the rugby league gospel down the Falls Road, the Shanklin and all points in between. The faithful few who did take the trouble were rewarded with a half-decent game.

A half-full Twickenham yesterday evening suggested another gamble that did not quite pay off. There were mitigating factors. Fog at Leeds airport, speed restrictions on the railways and the usual clog-up on the motorways hindered the exodus south from the league heartlands and torrential rain made it a night for Londoners to stay in. Barring an outbreak of the plague in west London or a strike by the bus conductors, little else could have worked against attendance figures for the main feature.

To be fair, despite an historic debut at the spiritual home of rugby union, there was no great pretension about the occasion, just a few run-of-the-mill fireworks and a hearty rendering of the two anthems, then a cry of "let's get on with it". Not a sound of the trumpet, a crashing cymbal, nor a falling of the walls to mark the final charging of the citadel. Last week Rugby School, this week Twickenham. For the next month, the world. Or at least, Barrow, Llanelli, Wrexham and a free gazetteer for every fan.

In the interests of the expansionist corps at rugby league headquarters in Redhall, near Leeds, Great Britain had been divided and a number of their better players - Tommy Martyn for one - had chosen to retreat into their Irish ancestry rather than represent their native country. England duly emerged with a fetching upturned St George's Cross on their shirts, a potent symbol of their devolution and, according to the pessimists, of their imminent destruction at the hands of the "best side ever to come out of Australia".

We have heard the claim before, but enough influential and unbiased figures in the game had voiced it to quicken the tread down the streets around Twickenham. You hoped for a decent game and by and large we got one, but the assessment of John Kear, the squat, balding England coach did not exactly encourage hopes of a repeat of England's victory in the opening game of the 1995 World Cup.

There were three options, Kear thought: a) we get stuffed and have to think again; b) we lose a tight game and have to find a way to improve; c) we win and have to turn to Plan B to beat Australia again in the final. None seemed brimming with hubris. In the opposite camp, Steve Renouf, arguably the best centre in the game through the Nineties now plying his trade to good effect at Wigan having retired from international rugby, did a swift rundown on the Australians: Sailor (wing), Webcke (front row), Tallis (second row) and Lockyer (full-back) were the best in their positions in the world, he felt, and the negotiations began from there.

No one could criticise the England coach for lacking courage. To pitch an 18-year-old (Chev Walker) and a 19-year-old (Leon Pryce) into full metal combat with the world's best suggested a level of confidence in youth not altogether shared by the pundits. Pryce, in particular, combated the bottle-blond Mat Rogers, a prolific try scorer, with the innocence of a rookie and had a couple of chances to put his own name on the scoresheet. Yet when, in the fifth minute, Wendell Sailor bent down as if he had just dropped his pen for a moment to pick up the ball and score a facile try, after Brett Kimmorley's neat angled kick, there was no need for Cassandra to determine what might happen next.

The bookies had bet 100-1 on Australia not conceding a point throughout the tournament. The England captain, Andy Farrell, put paid to that little jackpot with a well-taken penalty but you might recall they gave away one try - to the USA of all teams - in winning the Rugby Union World Cup and you could still get decent odds on a shut-out for the Kangeroos this time. So watertight was their defence, there was a suggestion they had followed the union code at Twickenham and fielded a XV. Any hint of a break was met by a phalanx of dark green, gallantly though young England strived for the opening.

By half-time, England were clinging on tenaciously but the finger-tips were beginning to feel a little raw. A score of 8-2 was more than respectable, though the tally did not tell that two further Australian tries had been disallowed after lengthy consultation with the third eye. The worrying thought is that Australia, a month or two out of their season now, can only get better. A judgment on the best will have to wait for another day along with a true assessment of rugby league's showpiece.

Comments