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.

Rugby League World Cup Final Network Data Visualisation

First, the semifinal highlights.

The BBC haven’t bothered to put their “funny” one up yet, so instead, have the 5 minute highlights of Fiji vs Australia, of which the important details are Fiji were in the lead and they did score a try this time. That Australia won is a completely unimportant detail.

In much the same way, of the Tonga vs England match, the 70 minutes that England were way ahead are unimportant when you consider Tonga’s glorious near-comeback, which involved 3 tries in 10 minutes. The third try in particular was a thing of beauty. If only they didn’t keep giving other teams a head start!

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Final Network Data Visualisation

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Going into the final, the team closest to the centre are Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. The other teams which would have had World Cup winners no matter who won are St George Illawara and Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

Interestingly, all of Canberra and South Sydney Rabbitohs representatives are playing for England, Josh Hodgson and Elliot Whitehead for Canberra and Sam and Tom Burgess for the Bunnies.

The team with the most players in the final are Melbourne Storm, with 7, all for Australia, with their two Fijians having gone out in the semifinals. Next are Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, Warrington and St Helens with 4 players each. The Sharks lost 1 Tongan in the semis, Warrington 1 Fijian, while Saints have the same number in the final as they had in the semis.

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The community view makes little sense, as it tends not to when down to only two teams. Most of the English and Australian players are the same colour as England or Australia, the players that play for teams that join the two countries are coloured by club but for some unknown reason so are Leeds, Canberra, Wests Tigers and Penrith, all of whose players play in one country. If that was because there’s a large number of them, you’d think Melbourne Storm would be coloured a different colour too, because they’re a (relatively) large community. One day I will understand how the community concept works in Gephi!

Rugby League World Cup 2017 Final Thoughts

(This was written when the original England team for the finals was announced, after Hodgson’s injury, but before O’Loughlin was announced as being unavailable. I still stand by most of it, even Jonny Lomax can only add so much flair on his own. The original team was here.)

You remember how I promised I wouldn’t complain about Wayne Bennett’s squad pick because he had at least picked Walmsley and Percival? Some of his recent choices are making that hard to stick to. Even at the time, his decision not to take more than two hookers was, interesting, brave and other insults from Sir Humphrey Appleby. Now that Josh Hodgson is injured, it looks particularly foolish. I know Roby can do 80 minutes, but I am a Saints fan so I am equally convinced that Roby can play 80 minutes followed by walking on water and feeding the five thousand.

Given the lack of hooking back up, the Bennett hasn’t picked a single back on the sub’s bench is … worrying.

To an extent, I can see Bennett’s plan. There are two kinds of coaches, ones who think that their formation of choice is *the* one and will squeeze their players into it, and then ones that look at the players they have at their disposal and try to get them to play in whatever formation suits their skills the best. Bennett is definitely of the second type. I can see why he’s going with “bringing back the biff” because, man for man, the England forward line *is* better than the Australian one. It’s just that he’s sacrificed the scoring power of one winger (Ryan Hall who is getting zero service because the centre inside him is John Bateman who is actually a second row) and any chance of explosive flair for this plan.

I want to believe that England will win. I know everyone keeps saying we should back our boys and I would love to. It’s just, as a whole, and Watkins and McGillvary being honorary exceptions, there’s a distinct lack of creative flair in this squad as a whole, never mind the 17 men chosen for the final.

This is not a classic Australian team. For most positions, man for man, they’re not that much better than England. The problem is that in those few positions where they are better, they are significantly better, and all of those positions are the creative roles. After umpteen years in the NRL I don’t think the three musketeers are going to be put off by a few hard tackles, no matter that they’re creaky with age and short a musketeer.

The other reason I don’t want to believe is that I’ve been here before. I was there for that loss to New Zealand, that horrible moment when Shaun Johnson scored and then converted and Pompeii by Bastille blared out of the loudspeakers, at just the wrong moment for a song encouraging me to be an optimist about anything. If hoping leads to that again, I don’t want it.

Rugby League World Cup Semifinal Connectivity Diagrams

The BBC’s quarterfinal micro-highlights video is here. Obviously they can’t show the entirety of NZ vs Fiji, despite it being 80 minutes of gloriousness and far more entertaining than any 4 – 2 rugby league match should ever be.

Do, however, spend 5 minutes watching the start of the match. Not just because Fiji have an entire squad that can sing.

The semifinal diagram is much simplified due to New Zealand and Samoa’s removal.

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The club team nearest the centre are now St George Illawarra, while the national team nearest the centre are Australia. England do stick out somewhat.

The club team with the most players left are Melbourne Storm with 9. The players they lost between the quarterfinals and the semifinals were 2 New Zealanders, 1 Samoan and 1 Papua New Guinean). They are followed by Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra with 6. Brisbane are missing 2 New Zealanders, 1 Samoan and 1 Papua New Guinean from before while St George are missing 2 New Zealanders, 2 Samoan and 1 Papua New Guinean.

The community view is interesting.

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In the community view, the four countries are all different communities. Clubs which link players from more than 1 country (Sydney Roosters: Boyd Cordner (Australia), Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Daniel Tupou (Tonga) and Kane Evans (Fiji); Wests Tigers: Aaron Woods (Australia), Tuimoala Lolohea (Tonga) and Kevin Naiqama and Pio Sokobalavu (Fiji); Manly Sea Eagles: the Trbojevic brothers (Australia) and Apisai Koroisau and Akuila Uate (Fiji) and Huddersfield: Jermain McGillvary (Eng) and Ukuma Ta’ai (Tonga)) are also each their own separate community, which makes some sort of sense.

Rugby League World Cup Semi Final Predictions

The matches are Australia vs Fiji and Tonga vs England.

Australia vs Fiji:

I know what people are saying, that we have been here before and it ends badly for Fiji.  And yes, it did.  I know because I was quite literally there, but I believe Ashton Sims when he says that this Fiji team are better than that Fiji team, not just because I’d believe Ashton Sims if he said the moon was made of cheese.  And this is not a classic Australia side.

Such tiny hopes are what sports fans hangs their dreams on.

Tonga vs England:

Tonga are beatable, and Lebanon did themselves more than proud.  May all our national teams perform with as much heart.

I have given up on England.  I know I always say that, and I know that they are in the semifinal which is what they were expected to do.  Which makes them more successful than New Zealand.  At the same time, none of England’s performances have been that good and, Kallum Watkins and Jermaine McGilvary notwithstanding, no one has lived up to their potential.  Admittedly there are a couple of players who have been played in positions that seem designed so that they can’t.

England may or may not beat Tonga, but even if they do, I can’t see them beating the winner of Australia vs Fiji (please let it be Fiji).

Rugby League World Cup Quarter Final Data Visualisation

You have no idea how difficult it is to post this without giggling with glee about today’s results. Let me assure you there is off-screen gleeful giggling.

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For those who haven’t been watching, please enjoy the Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3 highlights from the BBC.

This is my favourite individual try so far.

The two best moments have probably been the Sipi Tau vs Siva Tau war dance off which was amazing, and then the Haka vs Siva Tau near fight which may have taken dance-related leniancy to it’s extremes. It also lead to the glorious Tongan victory over New Zealand. Which has ensured that there cannot be an Australia vs New Zealand final, which is unexpected.

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Well that was embarrassing for the Northern hemisphere. None of them, with the exception of Ireland, who were stuffed by being in one of the 3 team pools, can complain given their performances. I realise that it’s a minority sport in the countries that have not qualified from the groups but there’s a difference between losing and losing horribly!

Samoa are the national team closest to the centre, Catalan Dragons are somehow the club team closest to the centre.

Melbourne Storm now have the most players in the World Cup with 13, followed by St. George Illawara and Cronulla Sutherland Sharks, with 11. All the Melbourne players that started the tournament are still in while 1 St George’s and 1 Sharks player, both playing for Italy, are out.

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In the community view, despite how interconnected Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa are, they all appear as separate communities.

Rugby League World Cup Quarterfinal Predictions

Since I will not have my quarterfinal dataviz ready before Australia vs Samoa on Friday, I want to record my predictions now. Mostly so I can say I told you so.

The four quarterfinals are:

Australia vs Samoa
Tonga vs Lebanon
New Zealand vs Fiji
England vs Papua New Guinea

I expect Australia will win, but I hope Samoa will get at least a couple of tries. Tonga vs Lebanon could get tasty but I expect Tonga to win by several tries. I am excited for NZ vs Fiji, even if I know Fiji, the team I want to win, probably won’t win.

With regard to England’s quarterfinal, I want to join everyone else in saying that it’s not fair that it is being held in Melbourne rather than Port Moresby. As Papua New Guinea are co-hosts with NZ and Australia, it is wrong that they don’t host any matches after the group stage.

It also improves England’s chances of beating them.

I am slightly torn because I want PNG to do well, but I don’t want a team featuring James Graham, James Roby, Alex Walmsley and Mark Percival to lose. I also think a close match might finally kick England’s posteriors into gear. Because that second half against France was not acceptable.

Rugby League World Cup 2017 Data Visualization

I’ve done my usual thing of mapping what club team and nation the players play for. I should probably have done this for the last world cup but at that time I was still coping with the idea of James Graham playing for a team that aren’t Saints. Even five years on, it took me all my time not to mark him down with an asterisk. Because hopefully he will come home one day.

Ahem!

I am not going to say anything about the England team because I promised I wouldn’t if Wayne Bennett picked Alex Walmsley and Mark Percival. If neither of them gets a game, this may change.

On to the actual diagram.

 

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I didn’t expect to find such a sharp divide between the Northern and Southern hemisphere sides. Italy and Lebanon having been temporarily moved into the Southern hemisphere, because both of them have a lot of players who play in Australia.

England are the national team closest to the middle, this is probably because they have both players who play in Australia, and a lot of the other Northern hemisphere teams are mainly made up of players who play in England.

Salford Red Devils are the club team closest to the centre. It sounds somewhat inexplicable. It is probably because 2 of the 4 Salford players play for a Southern hemisphere team (Tonga) and the other two play for Northern hemisphere teams (Ireland and Wales).

I know PNG and the US only have 23 players not 24. Not it’s not a mistake, at least not at my end, I double checked their official press releases (http://www.nrl.com/png-kumuls-name-world-cup-squad/tabid/10874/newsid/112727/default.aspx and http://www.rlwc2017.com/news/team-usa).

Yes, that is that Mirco Bergamasco. Yes he was a union player. Yes, he is that old. But I have spent so much of my life cheering for him as he does stupid, reckless and impossible things, I will happily do it one more time.

Melbourne Storm are the team with the most players, with 13. Next are St George Illawara, Cronulla Sharks, London Broncos, Parramatta Eels and New Zealand Warriors with 12.

Interestingly, only 2 of the St George Illawara and 3 of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks are playing for Australia. The remaining 10 St George Illawara players are playing for New Zealand (2), Samoa (2), Fiji (2), England (1), Tonga (1), Papua New Guinea (1) and Italy (1). Of the Sharks players meanwhile 4 play for Samoa and 1 each for England, NZ, Tonga, PNG and Italy.

Of the New Zealand Warriors players, despite the name, only 3 are playing for New Zealand. The remainder play for Samoa (4), Tonga (3), Scotland and the United States (1 each).

None of the London Broncos players are in the England team, they are largely playing for Wales. None of the Parramatta Eels players play for Australia. They seem to be playing for every nation except Australia.

 

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In the community view, Ireland and England as one community, ditto NZ and Australia. I think that’s because most of the Irish players play in England for teams who also have players playing for England. For Australia and New Zealand, all but two of the New Zealand players play for teams in the Australian National Rugby League.

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, especially as there is a chance, however slim, that Tonga might beat New Zealand to the top spot in group B.

Rugby League 101

As it is Rugby League World Cup time again, I felt it might be an idea to briefly cover the basics of the game for any new fans watching. The information is taken from here and here.

Somewhat worryingly, both of the rules pages start with the information that you’re trying to score more points than the other team, but I’m going to assume that you can guess that.

The very basic rules of the game are that each team is given six chances to score. Each chance ends with a tackle (a tackle is a tackle when the referee calls “held”). If, after six tackles, the team have not scored, the ball is handed over to the other team who then get the chance to score with their six tackles.

There are 4 ways of scoring:

1 – A Try – A try is worth 4 points. It is similar to a touchdown in American football, except you actually have to touch the ball down with control and downward pressure. I’ve highlighted those last words because if you don’t do them, the try will not be awarded to your team.

2 – A Conversion – A conversion is worth 2 points. They can be scored only after the team has scored a try. The kick is taken from a position perpendicular to the goal line where the try was scored. The ball must pass between the goalposts and over the crossbar. If the team scores a conversion after a try, it is referred to as a converted try.

3 – A Penalty Kick – Also worth 2 points. Often just referred to as a penalty, this is one of the two options a team captain can take when the referee awards his team a penalty. The other option is to receive another set of 6 tackles with which to try to score.

4 – A Drop Goal – worth 1 point. This is scored when the ball is kicked between the goalposts and over the cross bar in open play.

A match lasts 80 minutes, split up into 2 halves of 40 minutes. The time is kept by a separate time keeper who sounds a hooter to signal the end of each half. If you’re really unlucky and playing at one of the French stadiums, it sounds like an air-raid siren.

Both teams will have 13 players on the pitch at any one time. As in ice hockey, there are rolling substitutions with no need for a stoppage in play. There is a limit on the number of these interchanges, with a maximum of 12 per team per game.

When passing the ball, it must go level or backwards. If the ball goes forwards, this is called a forward pass and the referee will award the other team a scrum and give them the ball. The team is said to have been “given head and feed at the scrum”.

A rugby league scrum is formed of 6 players from each team. The scrum half puts the ball into the scrum, and the hooker from his team hooks the ball backwards to gain possession of the ball for his team.

Scrums are also awarded for knock-ons. A knock-on is when the ball is dropped forwards by a player and hits the ground or another player.

A 40/20 kick is one where a player standing on or behind their 40-metre line gains ground by kicking the ball into their opponent’s 20-metre area. As long as the ball has bounced inside the field of play before going out to touch (out of bounds) in the 20 metre area, the kicking team are awarded head and feed at the scrum. Therefore, they will probably six more tackles to try to score. It is very rare that the team that gets the ball to put into the scrum don’t have possession after the scrum.

If the ball goes out behind the posts after a 40/20 rather than going out in the 20 metre area, the non-kicking team are given 7 tackles to try to score a try.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure what’s happened. The referees wear microphones and have a set of hand signals that they use to indicate what is going on. These have been handily summarised here:

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The offside rule does nothing but cause everyone headaches but basically, the defending team have to be 10 meters away from the attacking team when they play the ball after the tackle, and the person on the attacking team receiving the ball from the play the ball must be directly behind their team-mate.

Obstruction is when one of the attacking team runs across the line of a defender trying to tackle their team-mate.

Tackles are not allowed to be above shoulder height. Above that it is a high tackle.

For something like that, or other foul play that is deserving of more than a penalty to the opposition, a referee can give one of 3 punishments:

1 – A yellow card – the offender has to spend 10 minutes in the sin bin. Their team has to play the 10 minutes with 12 players.

2 – A red card – the offender is sent off and cannot play for the rest of the match. Their team has to play the rest of the match with 12 players.

3 – The player is put on report – while better for the team in the short run because the player gets to stay on the pitch and carry on playing, it means the disciplinary panel will look at the offence and decide what punishment is appropriate. This can be anything from nothing to a 4 match ban.

I think that covers the important things.

This year, the women’s rugby league World Cup is taking place at the same time, so please show the ladies some love.

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While I am cheering for the Lionesses, please enjoy this photo of Sarina Fiso (NZ captain) and Ruan Sims (Australia captain).

Adieu To Rob Burrow

Saturday evening will see Rob Burrow’s last rugby game. He’s my favourite active rugby player. And, as per usual, I will be hoping his team lose.

Because that’s what happens when your faourite player doesn’t play for your favourite team.

Not that Castleford are my favourite team, but I’d really rather than them win than Leeds again. I have seen Burrow tear Saints apart one time too often (even the mention of the 2011 Grand Final remains painful).

I will be honest here, the reason Burrow is my favourite *is* because he’s the littlest. In a time when rugby players seem to be ever larger behemoths, that he’s 5 foot 5 and made it with hella hard work and talent is inspiring.

I believe some Youtube videos are required.

The Leeds Rhino’s official video – Tributes to Rob Burrow –

Grand Final Golden Moments: Rob Burrow’s Solo Try, 2011 –

(Also refered to as that bloody try by me)

Epalahame Lauaki Fights agiants Rob Burrow –

Rob Burrow 500 game tribute – Rob Burrow 500 game tribute –

He’s fast, sneaky, clever and brave, the littlest and the best. Why did he have to play for Leeds?