Time to capture the imagination

RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD CUP: The biggest event in the game's history begins at Wembley tomorrow. Dave Hadfield reports
Click to follow
The build-up is over. The political arguments, which have gone on rather longer, are over, at least for now. All that remains is the action; and it is that action that will determine whether the game's 100th birthday is a celebration or an anticlimax.

The Halifax Centenary World Cup, which kicks off after Diana Ross has warbled at Wembley tomorrow, is the biggest event in a century of rugby league. That does not, of course, make it as big as the last sporting event at which Miss Ross sang, football's World Cup in Los Angeles. And compared to rugby union's beanfeast in South Africa last summer, the hype has been non-existent.

What the code has is what it has had throughout its history - not worldwide domination, but a level of entertainment that can leave even the uncommitted wondering how it has failed to seize the global imagination. Starting with the opening match between England and the world champions and tournament favourites, Australia, tomorrow afternoon, this World Cup promises high- speed contact sport at its most gripping. Now we will see whether it can deliver.

The tournament director, Maurice Lindsay, says, as he must, that we are in for three weeks of scintillating rugby. The game, after all the upheavals of the last year, needs that. It is up to England and Australia to set the standard and, if both have limitations that prevent them being at their optimum level, then they at least appear well-matched opponents.

Australia, however you look at it, would be stronger if the Super League row had not split the game in that country. England's problems are more mundane. They are simply suffering from the inroads that injuries have made into a limited stock of world-class talent.

Whoever wins at Wembley - and Lindsay will be praying that the BBC's trailer filmed in an empty stadium is not prophetic - the tournament is geared to England and Australia meeting again in the final at the same venue three weeks later.

As the New Zealand coach, Frank Endacott, says, such plans are made to be spoiled, and the Kiwis, despite dreadful form over the last year, must be the most likely spoilers.

They should win a group that also includes Tonga and Papua New Guinea, although they must be wary of both. If they can strike some sort of form in the process, they will be dangerous semi-final opponents for the side which finishes second in the England-Australia group, which also includes Fiji and South Africa.

Given a choice, both Australia's Bob Fulton and England's Phil Larder would like to avoid them, because they know that before too long the Kiwis are going to click, not merely clunk as they have done of late. Looking at the array of talent as they paraded for the cameras at Warrington this week, the thought kept creeping through that these, in terms of pure ability, should be the favourites.

Instead, New Zealand rank a distant third, and if they fall on their faces again, could fail to justify even that modest rating. They might not even be the main danger to the big two. That threat could emerge from Group Three, the intriguing three-cornered battle in South Wales.

The home side start with obvious advantages and with the mighty asset of Jonathan Davies, eager to bid farewell to international rugby league with a memorable tournament, as captain and inspiration.

The sheer size of their forwards is Wales' other potential trump card, especially if, as can be expected, Clive Griffiths perms various combinations from his bench to ensure that there are always fresh runners available.

Few rugby followers in Wales, however, will be over-confident when faced with a side wearing the colours of Western Samoa. They have wonderful individual talent, and not just among the players familiar from their English club connections, but collectively they could be either devastating or inept.

Just to confuse matters further, there is the eternal unpredictability of the French. They too could be admirable or awful, but the fact that they have one of the smartest operators in the game in charge in Patrick Entat suggests that they will be no pushovers.

It is possible to pick any number of holes in this World Cup. Ticket sales so far are disappointing, but this is rugby league, and rugby league people do not automatically turn up to watch matches because someone has stuck a grandiose label on them. They will have to be convinced.

Some of the sides are, to be honest, a little contrived, the Tongan and Samoan squads being heavily dependent on expatriates with at least one other alternative nationality.

And even with their inclusion, there are not quite enough teams to give a World Cup the right sort of shape. One of the competing countries, South Africa, knows in its heart of hearts that it is not ready. But there will be more furiously competitive matches than there will be one-sided ones, and more open, flowing contests than there are dull, formulaic ones.

The theme song might be performed by the lead singer of a forgotten pop group rather than by a dame, but that does not make it a pantomime. On the contrary, the one thing that everyone in and around the game is confident of is that the quality of the matches will compare favourably with anything that other codes of football can lay on.

Provided it can get off to a good start this weekend, with a satisfying spectacle in an at least half-full Wembley, and with good support for the two matches on Sunday that do not involve British sides, then the World Cup can get on a roll.

There are teams and individuals here capable of grabbing the attention and the imagination of the converted and unconverted alike. This, in the broadest sense, is what the last 100 years have been all about.