THIS afternoon, you will witness the climax of five weeks’ rugby league which will, in all likelihood, change the sport forever.
International competition is responsible for ‘Northern Union’ rugby spreading to Australia and New Zealand in 1907, thanks to Albert Baskiville’s daring All Golds tour of Britain.
And perhaps Baskiville (the spelling of his name was later altered to ‘Baskerville’) would have opened up new territories for the game upon his return to New Zealand. Who knows? He may have taken an all star line-up, spearheaded by Lance Todd and the opportunity to make a few bob, to South Africa or America in the first decade of the last century.
But Albert Henry Baskiville died at the age of just 25 in Brisbane, at the tail end of the All Golds tour which sowed the seeds of rugby league to kick off in Australia the following year.
And for most of the century that followed, England, New Zealand and Australia kept our game pretty much to themselves. Maybe the pneumonia, contracted by Baskiville on a ship from Sydney to Brisbane, was a sliding doors moment for rugby league – and the door closed tight on further expansion for decades.
The first Australian team to visit the United Kingdom the following year, 1908, spent a month in Wales and played Tests in Birmingham, London and Newcastle and a match against a Northern Union selection in Glagow.
But generally speaking, expansion has been sporadic and uncoordinated. The United States sent a team to Australasia and France in 1953, South Africa toured Australia 1963, Australia toured Italy – who had already taken on Britain and France – in 1960.
There were many, many more sliding doors moments for the code during this period: correspondence unanswered, important events ruined by weather, poor administrative decisions, short-sightedness, personal misfortune and the impact of events outside the sport.
The next great movement towards expanding the game’s boundaries came with the advent of the World Sevens, a tournament run by Sydney lawyer Colin Love from 1988. Not only did the Sevens encourage the Australian Lebanese and Italian communities for form teams, and then forge links with people in their home countries, but it reignited the sport in South Africa, the United States and Russia.
And it gave us the country that has made the last two World Cup semi-finals, Fiji. They were backed by no less than General Sitiveni Rabuka when they fronted up at the Sydney Football Stadium in 1992.
It was on the back of this third epoch of expansion that the 1995 World Cup was staged in Britain, with Keighley gasping at the skills of the the Fijians, kick-off at Wigan delayed because of the throng outside and Old Trafford packed for an England-Wales semi-final.
The 2000 tournament, also in the UK, was dogged by terrible weather and transport chaos and, in retrospect, probably over-reached in terms of venues and number of teams. It was another eight years before the second oldest World Cup in sport was again held, and the 2008 tournament in Australia put the concept back on an even keel with strong crowds and the greatest moment in Kiwi league history.
The 2013 version has been something else again.
Exciting double-headers in Cardiff and London, the unforgettable comeback by Samoa in Warrington, the United States’ Wiggles-inspired success in a bid to #shocktheworld , Scotland’s brave run to the quarter-finals, the stirring pre-match rituals of the island teams, Italy’s greatest side ever and a clash for the ages between New Zealand and England last Saturday.
France got a standing ovation when down 42-0 in Avignon, a rugby ball autographed by Julian Assange was raffled by activists in Wrexham, Sonny Bill Williams performed a personal lap of honour in Leeds and the Irish sung ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ as a late night flight carrying themselves and the Australians took off from Shannon Airport.
But my personal favourite memory was Fiji’s Eloni Vunacece, accompanied by a pint-sized mascot during the anthems in atrocious conditions at St Helens, rubbing the shoulders of the youngster to keep him warm.
For 107 years, international rugby league has been a poor cousin to the club game to which it gave birth. But the colours, personalities and rituals of our national teams have taken root in the game’s mainstream consciousness this month and last.
They’ll stay there. A giant has awoken.
AH Baskiville’s body was returned to New Zealand for burial back at the dawn of international rugby league. His remains were interred at Karori Cemetery.
But his spirit has arguably never soared so high as it will at Old Trafford this afternoon.
WORLD CUP XVII
1. Matt Russell (Scotland)
2. Ryan Hall (England)
3. Jarryd Hayne (Australia)
4. Greg Inglis (Australia)
5. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand)
6. Joseph Paulo (United States)
7. Shaun Johnson (New Zealand)
13. Paul Gallen (Australia)
12. Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
11. Sam Burgess (England)
10. FuiFui MoiMoi (Tonga)
9. Issac Luke (New Zealand)
8. Mose Masoe (Samoa)
14. Johnathan Thurston
15. Joey Leilua
16. Brett White
17. Luke Douglas
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD CUP 2013