The ultimate of rugby league games is like any sport, it is the final. And not just the national final but the World Cup Final. So it was last Saturday that we made our way to the the “Theatre of Dreams” Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United to watch the historic 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final.
As in the previous World Cup Final of 2008 this was to be contested by Australia and New Zealand. Previously the Kiwis (New Zealand) caused a big surprise and beat favourites Australia. This time they had no such luck and were comprehensively beaten by the Aussies and now 10 times winners of the trophy.
Admittedly the sport of international rugby league is not as competitive as sport like football. In recent decades the dominant nations have come from England (formerly playing as part of Great Britain), Australia and New Zealand. So when two of the “big three” meet it has a chance of being one of the great rugby league games. The crowd certainly thought so too with over 74,000 packing in for a world record crowd for any of the world’s international rugby league games. Remember as well that this was on English soil, miles away from the homeland of these two nations.
My bride and I, plus two others set off just after 11am for our big day out. We are all big followers of rugby league matches although not of the same club teams.
The big crowd and traffic jams had their impact as we only walked to our seats whilst the national anthems were playing before a 2:30 kick off. It shouldn’t take that long to get there.
We were however in time to watch the traditional New Zealand Hakka pre-match.
It is the first time I’ve been to Old Trafford in more than 20 years and it was a pleasant surprise to see our seats were padded. However this was little consolation for being crammed in. I couldn’t sit back in my seat as I would have the knees of the person behind me in my back. Likewise I had to be careful with my knees to the person in front. Elbow room was tight.
The atmosphere built and the mostly British crowd showed that their support was mostly for the Kiwis by booing the Australian team. The atmosphere could have been much more exciting though if England had made it to the final. They lost in the most exciting of rugby league games the week before in a semi-final defeat to New Zealand. In a game viewed by many as the most exciting of the tournament the Kiwis sealed victory with the very last play of the game.
I must admit that I was wishing the Australians to victory in the final. Coming from the NRL (National Rugby League in Australia) they develop players who are known to be amongst the best in the world. The starting line up included the “big 3” from the Melbourne Storm club (Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith) as well as eventual man of the match – Johnathan Thurston.
On the other side, New Zealand had great appeal for followers of the other code of rugby (rugby union) with (Sonny Bill Williams) a former star of the New Zealand All Blacks.
Okay so this is a travel blog so why am I talking about rugby league? Well the Rugby League World Cup of 2013 was a way of bringing many nations of the world together. I believe that when you visit somewhere you should try to absorb the culture of the place. Sport is part of many peoples culture. In Papua New Guinea rugby league is their national sport. In Australia and New Zealand it competes with a few others for prime spot. Whilst in the UK it is perceived as mainly a northern sport (most clubs are based and historically from the north) it is still one of the most viewed sports on TV.
The 2013 Rugby League World Cup featured 14 teams. Some relative newcomers to the competition such as the USA and Italy drew much interest.
Whilst there remains a great imbalance between the dominant 3 nations and the rest, the competition was structured to provide competitive rugby league games. Matches such as Scotland v Italy, France v Papua New Guinea and USA v Cook Islands all added to the excitement.
There is little doubt the competition was a big success with 7 of the hosting grounds having sell out crowds.
The cultural experience was not lost off the field either. Broadcasting commentator Andrew Voss from Australia provided daily updates of the types of local food he was trying.
Whilst marked as the Rugby League World Cup held in England and Wales, if truth be told it stretched further than that. Host venues included grounds in France and Ireland.
Whilst the attendees in the final and indeed the overall winner was something you could predict, it didn’t take away from the overall enjoyment. The World Cup in its entirety was a joy as it was full of fantastic rugby league games.