Rugby League: The desperate need is to keep the ball moving

The rugby league World Cup must not go to waste, argues Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
Even though its finale on Saturday suggested that, in one sense, nothing had changed, the Halifax Centenary World Cup has altered both the perception and the reality of the sport it was designed to celebrate.

The international pecking order remains the same: Australia first, Great Britain - or, in this case, England - second, the rest trailing some way behind. But it is in the broadening of that field stretching out beyond the front two that the World Cup achieved its greatest success.

It is the conventional sneer against rugby league's progress, or lack of it, over its hundred-year existence, that anything with the word "world" in it is a candidate for prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act.

There is more than a grain of truth in that, of course. Five full Test- playing nations is not much to show for a century of evangelism, but what the World Cup has shown is that, had there been more energy put into evangelism, the numbers would look a lot more healthy.

In terms of making up for lost time, the need to put on a credible show for the centenary concentrated minds wonderfully. The result was that, taking the senior World Cup and the Emerging Nations tournament together, as many countries gave a decent account of themselves as in football or rugby union's equivalent events.

In retrospect, South Africa should have been spared unneccesary punishment by being bracketed with the Emerging Nations, but even they can reflect on a startling improvement during the course of the tournament.

Everyone else had their moments. Tonga took part in two of the finest matches you could ever hope to see, could have won both but actually won neither. Fiji delighted the crowd at Keighley, Western Samoa made the valleys ring with their vigour and vitality, and Papua New Guinea played well enough to ensure that they would be mobbed on their arrival back at Port Moresby airport.

The belated decision to invite Wales to take part - and how bizarre it seems now that there was ever any doubt about it - was more than vindicated. But for a ticketing system that appeared to have been devised in the pre- glasnost Soviet Union, Ninian Park as well as the Vetch Field would have been packed to the rafters to see them.

If the Rugby League approached the World Cup proper with some trepidation, then the Emerging Nations struck many as the unwanted offspring of unwanted offspring. The way that it seized the imagination of crowds at Featherstone, Leigh and even Northampton was the most heartening aspect of the last three weeks. The way that British supporters have flocked not merely to watch Tonga and PNG but the Cook Islands and Russia as well should force a rethink on some of the most cherished preconceptions about the game, its strengths and weaknesses.

If the understated and undersold centenary has celebrated anything, it has been the parochial intensity of the game. As the response to the merger mania that ushered in the code's hundredth year showed, there is a depth of feeling for clubs and individuals that is hard to match. The flip-side of that is that the game has lacked a breadth of emotion. People care about their local side and how they fare against the mob from down the road, but not much else.

That, at any rate, was the theory. It will have to be reconsidered, because the great British public has shown that they will support international competition, even when they have hardly heard of the places and people involved.

The success of the World Cup is a marvellous opportunity to build upon this international dimension. What the League must not do is sit back and congratulate itself on a job well done. It is debatable, in any case, just how well it, as the organising body, did its job. The World Cup prospered purely because the players made up for an awful lot of deficiencies off the field.

Rugby league has had these opportunities before; moments like the 1982 Kangaroo tour, the 1985 Challenge Cup final and British victories over Australia from 1988 onwards have all pushed the code into the limelight. In all cases, the limelight has been allowed to fade before enough tangible progress has been made.

In the British Isles, a start can be made by giving Ireland a full international against France and by taking top club matches to Dublin, Scotland and the Midlands. A move to start a club in the Scottish Borders should be encouraged, and the boat must not be missed in Newcastle.

Further afield, Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa have all done enough to be granted full Test status and international board membership. The complication is that the international board will not be around for long, as it will be a casualty of the battle over Super League.

Whatever replaces it will inherit a momentum that would have been undreamed- of for most of the game's history.

The challenge now is to pick up that ball and run with it, rather than putting it in a glass case to be admired. The men who made it all happen, from Brad Fittler, the Australian captain who lifted the World Cup, down to the Moroccan substitutes, deserve that much.

WORLD CUP WINNERS... ...AND LOSERS

1 The Australian Rugby League: Who proved that they were still the best in the world, even without Super League players.

2 Wales: Who gave the country something to cheer - rather more than their representatives in some other codes of football have managed of late.

3 The Cook Islands: Who brought a breath of Polynesian pleasure to the North of England as they won the Emerging Nations World Cup.

4 The referees: A much-maligned factor in rugby league, they came through with flying colours.

5 The crowds: Which were far beyond all expectations, especially in the more obscure locations for the more obscure games.

6 Andrew Johns: Who arrived for the start of the tournament as Australia's reserve scrum-half, but re-emerged as their hooker and man of the match in the final.

1 Martin Offiah: Who picked the worst possible time to lose his cutting edge.

2 Chris Joynt: Responsible for the comic highlight of the tournament when he passed to the touch-judge during England's game against South Africa.

3 Shaun Edwards: Who suffered a stomach bug, an accusation of racial abuse and an infected knee. Apart from that, a great World Cup.

4 South Africa: Who found out the hard way that putting your head down and directing a big frame into the opposing defence does not get you far in rugby league.

5 Pierre Grobbelaar: Who found out the hard way that making a big frame bigger with chemical help does not get you far either.

6 TV watchers: Or at least the 99 per cent of the population without Live TV and reliant on BBC coverage. They missed much of the best of the 1995 World Cup.

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