WHEN NEWS broke that three Scotland players were being sent home from the World Cup in disgrace it was a shock to many sports fans – mainly because they weren’t aware a World Cup was taking place.
Rugby league’s 2017 event has struggled to capture the imagination either here or, apparently, in Australia where many of the matches are being staged, but based on what has happened so far it might prove to be a turning point for the sport at international level.
Tonga’s win over New Zealand last weekend was the first time one of the big-three – the others being Australia and England – have been upset by a so-called tier two nation. It also guarantees, for the first time since 1995, the final won’t be between the Kangaroos and Kiwis, who are now in the same half of the draw and likely to meet at the penultimate stage.
Burt the psychic crocodile has picked Samoa to beat Australia, the defending champions, in their quarter-final this morning. If his snap prediction (sorry) proves accurate it will be the biggest shock in the sport’s history, but the underdogs have already shown they have bite.
The success of Tonga who, boosted by the decision of some high-profile Aussies and Kiwis to switch allegiance to their country of heritage, won all three of their group games ignited interest in rugby league there and the rise of the island nations has been the story of this World Cup so far. Samoa were fortunate to qualify for the knockout stages after failing to win a game, but Fiji go into tomorrow’s quarter-final against New Zealand on the back of a 100 per cent record as do England’s opponents Papua New Guinea.
All three will be outsiders to reach the semi-finals, but Fiji and PNG aren’t without a chance and the gap between the tier one nations and the rest does seem to be closing.
This World Cup is still all about who plays Australia in the final, but rugby league’s only hope of competing with the success of the 15-a-side code is by expanding its horizons and results up to now are an indication that is starting to happen.
Australia’s win over Lebanon last week attracted a 21,127 crowd in Sydney – good by the standards of this tournament – and plans are already in place for Lebanon to play more Tests.
The same applies to the Pacific nations and more international rugby, backed by expanding domestic competitions, is how the sport will grow.
It is a shame Australia hasn’t bought into that and State of Origin remains the priority, along with the NRL, with Test matches in a distant third place.
Unfortunately, Scotland – despite a remarkable draw with Samoa last week – and Wales are falling farther behind. Neither won a game and with France also looking out of their depth and Italy failing to build on their efforts of four years ago, it hasn’t been a good tournament for Europe. Ireland failed to reach the group stages, despite winning two of their three matches and that has exposed a flaw in the format which needs sorting out before the next World Cup.
The jury is out on England, who played better in their loss to Australia than during their wins against Lebanon and France. They should beat Papua New Guinea on Sunday, but Tonga in the semi-finals would be a stumbling block.
This England team have a big performance in them, but so far haven’t been able to put a full 80 minutes together and obviously they’ll need to do that just to reach the final.
If England do go all the way it should boost rugby league’s profile in this country, though clearly not by as much as in a home tournament.
Media interest has been limited so far and there was outrage last weekend when Premier Sports decided to drop their live coverage of New Zealand against Tonga, the best game so far.
The BBC is showing England’s games live, but a switch from BBC1 to BBC2 has been perceived by fans as a snub and so far their coverage of other matches has been limited to a couple of highlights shows per week – though the presentation has been very good. The time difference doesn’t help. The organisers should have put more thought into scheduling England’s quarter-final in Melbourne, which kicks off at 5am here.
So far it has all seemed quite remote, but the tournament really begins now.