Rugby League World Cup Final Thoughts

Yes, I know the World Cup Final was in December, but I’ve been busy with two fencing competitions, Christmas and New Years since then. The gap has helped to crystalize the moments that really stood out in the final and the tournament as a whole.

The 2017 World Cup Final

General Points

Any sport with pretensions to having a World Cup should be able to provide neutral referees. I know the general line is that the non-Australian or English refs are not as good as the Aussie or English refs, but it’s not fair on the ref that he’s asked to referee his own national team.

Separately to that, I don’t care what people say about Henry Peranara, he couldn’t have been worse than Gerrard Sutton was. It wasn’t just the high hits on English players he missed, or his interesting interpretation of the forward pass rule, it was the general air of ineptitude throughout. If his decisions were so wrong that the Australian co-commentator was saying that the rub of the decisions were going Australia’s way.

About Australia

That is a team that knows what it’s doing. Which I know sounds obvious, but it’s something to see. It’s a machine designed for winning World Cups. It won’t be pretty, it won’t be spectacular but it will be successful.

Mal Meninga, the rest of the coaching team, and the senior players realised that there were areas where they weren’t as strong as England, and made sure England couldn’t get to that soft underbelly. There was some magnificent in-play kicking under pressure which set up the platform for Australia to build on, so they could put more pressure on England’s defence in turn. It was something England didn’t manage.

Australia’s play was admirable.

Frustrating if you’re cheering for the opposition, but admirable.

Also admirable was Cam Smith mentioning the Jillaroos during the victory speech he made.

About England

In many ways, it’s all Zak Hardaker’s fault that England lost that final.

Work with me on this.

If he hadn’t managed to get himself banned through his own stupidity, Gareth Widdop could have played at stand-off, where he actually plays for his club. If England had a stand-off who can kick (apologies to Kev Brown, whose heart and effort I do not doubt, but his kicking isn’t as good as Widdop’s), this would have opened up more of the pitch. Australia had Cam Smith and Billy Slater, so that if the defence were on top of one of them, the other had room to manoeuvre. England did not have this. That put a lot of work on Luke Gale. Which is sub-optimal. It meant Australia knew that if it got late on in the tackle count they could just swarm Gale and that it would lead to a kick. They also knew more or less where the kick was going.

Widdop in the halves might also have meant more ball to Ryan Hall. Who was playing as a spare prop in the final. I don’t know if Wayne Bennett told him to go there or he did it himself because he was getting no ball on the wing and he thought he might as well make himself useful. I do know that by playing at prop-ish, he got more of the ball than he had in 4 previous games. Unfortunately that also meant one of England’s wingers spent most of the final further inside the pitch than his centre.

That should probably be “alleged centre”.

This World Cup saw a most disturbing occurrence. Saints and Wigan fans sticking up for each other’s players. Wigan fans were saying, “yeah, maybe Percival would be better at centre than Bateman. Because he is at least a centre.” In response Saints fans were saying “Bateman probably could improve on his ball handling skills, but it’s not his fault he’s been picked at centre.” (Bateman plays at second row for his club team.) It’s pretty much cats and dogs living together levels of unlikely.

There are certain flaws in Bateman’s game. But he isn’t picking himself at centre. I have no idea why Wayne Bennett insists on picking Bateman at centre, a position which only exposes those flaws.

I also discovered that my mother has no problem with people calling other people a “cheating (industrial language)” providing that the cheat in question has actually cheated. Aaron Woods needs to be aware that my mother is fond of James Graham and of making voodoo dolls.

With regard to the Ginger Hulk, that image of him bleeding might as well have been invented by the advertisers. Because short of whichever Burgess twin that was (they both look like the pre-Raphaelites decided to design a rugby player) doing the same, it’s hard to think of someone it would stand out on more.

The worst of being an England fan is the hope. It will kill you. That moment where Kallum Watkins ran, and he got past most of the Aussies and he’s almost away and … then that tap tackle.

You can see it here. You’ll note they too went with “the hope will kill you.” It is a truism. England’s many ways of losing is somewhere beyond swearing.

I disagree with the commentators who said it was as bad as the New Zealand semi-final loss four years ago. This was losing to a better team, which Australia were. The New Zealand loss was losing to a team of a similar quality to yourselves, due to one small mistake, in the last 30 seconds of the match.

I am very sad for Graham, Roby, Burgess S., and the others who probably won’t make it to another World Cup. Because oh, do those boys deserve something. Especially Roby, who made a complete mockery of the talk before the match about “can he do 80 minutes?” He was about the only person on the pitch who looked like he could play another 80 on top. But that is because he is awesome.

As was the World Cup in general.

It wasn’t perfect, rugby league urgently needs two more teams so there are even numbers in the pools. I would have said that even if Ireland hadn’t been the ones stuffed up by the uneven pools this time round. The present system also meant we knew who was going to qualify from group A after the first 2 matches.

RL also needs the not-Lebanon northern hemisphere teams to step up. Because Ireland notwithstanding, they were embarrassingly poor.

Papua New Guinea deserved to host one of the quarterfinals. For instance, the one they were in!

I think that’s the sum total of my complaints.

There’s been such a leap forward since 2013. So many of the Pacific Island have improved so much that the nonsense that only Australia, England and New Zealand had a chance was blown out of the water.

The most pleasing thing was seeing players as good as Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita choosing not to play for the Tier 1 nation they could have played for. Previously, if a player opted to play for a Tier 2 side it was because their Tier 1 side didn’t want/need them, but Taumalolo and Fifita are damn good players in their prime. It’s such good news for rugby league, and it needs to keep happening.

As an England fan, I want England to win, but as a rugby league fan, I’ll be damned if Fiji or Tonga winning wouldn’t make me almost as happy, and if PNG win, they’d have to pull me down off the ceiling.

If the RLIF can keep enabling this sort of progress it will be great for the game. Hopefully it will mean World Cup 2025 in North America will be excellent.

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