International Rugby League gets a bit of grief from time to time, but it’s interesting to note that Rugby League was the second team sport to hold a World Cup, after football. And it has had a range of subsequent formats that would make Super Rugby blush.
League was huge in France in the 1950s, and like with football, it took a French entrepreneur to fund and promote a World Cup. And, like football, the UK was less pretty sniffy about the overall concept.
This is the narrative of the first ever World Cup. Contested between four teams; France, Australia and New Zealand turned up properly, while Great Britain turned up without a blazer or even a practice ball between them. Home politics meant they were a disjointed lot.
Led by Scotsman Gary Valentine they ended up winning the inaugural trophy. The final was held two days after the final pool play matches.
The format is twofold. It is packaged around a key match for each World Cup (hence its title), yet all of those matches are intertwined with the stories of the tournaments themselves, and the various back-stories. Most featured matches are the finals themselves, but the 2013 showcase was the Kiwis’ last minute victory over the hosts in the semi-final at Wembley.
The back stories are good too. Harry Bath, coach of the 1970 Kangaroos, made his players train in a hailstorm before teaching the forwards to grab the opposing props’ roll of belly fat in the scrum. He even gave the tactic a name; “nipping”.
The 1970 final was famous for being as dirty as they got. Great Britain who had been the dominant team throughout pool play strangely decided to take the Australian players out from the start. One Kangaroo not involved in the violence was centre John Cootes, a Roman Catholic priest. He knew that when the punches started flying he could not retaliate because of his faith and the strict code of anti-violence that accompanied it. This did not make him immune as a target however.
The match was summed up by how it finished.
“Great Britain now had no chance of winning the game. They were resigned to an empty and soulless defeat. With the game in injury time Hynes and Smith decided to start a fight as the ball went out of play. They could have easily been two drunken patrons outside the local pub, fighting on the street. The fracas featured a mixture of punching, kicking and head-butting. The referee decided over fifty acts of violence was enough for one game and ordered them both from the field.
By the time the 1990s came around the game on the field had been largely cleaned up but off the field it was all go. The Super League wars were at the forefront of administrators’ minds, at the expense of the global game. Meanwhile, Rugby Union had finally gone professional and settled on a stable World Cup format.
A hangover from these times was that the 1998 World Cup was postponed until 2000 with an over ambitious 16 team format which included Lebanon. It was then an eight year gap until the next tournament in Australia.
The omens for that World Cup were not good with New Zealand in particular in a mess. At the start of the year Kiwis captain Roy Asotasi shafted coach Gary Kemble by saying he had no confidence in him. In fairness the previous year had not been good with a 14-20, 0-44 and 22-28 whitewash at the hands of Great Britain. Kemble had to fall on his sword and a young Stephen Kearney took over.
The real coup was to follow in securing the services of Wayne Bennett (who writes the forward for this book) as an assistant coach. That seemed strange at the time but it was simply because Bennett worried about the state of the international game.
And his concerns were well-founded. Australia beat New Zealand 30-6 in pool play followed by a 52-4 hammering of Great Britain. The schedule for the following season’s State of Origin series was receiving more attention in the Australian media.
Gradually the Kiwis got their act together, and helped by a brain explosion from Billy Slater (covered in detail) overcame the hosts in the final.
“The black and white ball is underway” as summed up by Ray Warren.
It is well researched book; the Bibliography is seven pages long. The only slight quibble is that it lacks an index. However, for any student of the game this is a must-read book, and a pretty handy complement for the next World Cup, held here later in the year.