By STEVE MASCORD
SLIPPERY WHEN … DRY
A slippery surface and strangely mute crowd – those were the minor negatives on an otherwise positive and encouraging opening day at the World Cup. Despite claims the crowd of 45,052 was a day one record, the Australia-Great Britain game to kick off the 1968 tournament attracted 62,256 at the SCG. Saturday’s attendance was certainly a triumph but England fans seemed scared of investing emotionally in a team that has let them down so often over the years. The match was not boring but it was slow. Players believe this was a result of the surface, which tends to suffer from condensation when the roof is closed – they were watching their footing and playing conservatively. Anthony Minichiello called the pitch “gluggy”. Oh, and Sam Burgess’ discipline problems are becoming a real issue.
A STROKE OF GENIUS
THE World Cup format was widely derided when announced before the 2008 tournament. Effectively, all the good teams are concentrated in one or two pools and they get the majority of places in the latter stages. Pools containing “development countries” have to progress through play-offs and repercharges. This matches like with like and gives the illusion of a competitive tournament while maximising the possibility of money-making clashes of the titans throughout. Your correspondent was one who dismissed this as cynical and even deceitful but is now happy to admit it is a stroke of genius. In fact, the principle could be applied to lopsided leagues in many sports – including Super League. Wigan, Leeds, Warrington and the rest could play each other and get most play-off spots, while those directly below them competing with the best of the rest for the remaining couple of berths. The beauty of it? You don’t even have to admit there’s two divisions – you dress it up as one.
NOT FAKIN’ IT
FEIGNING injury is a growing problem in rugby league but Canberra and Italy prop Paul Vaughan was involved in a bizarre strain of the practice at Millennium Stadium on Saturday. He was being helped off with what appeared a serious knee injury in the 48th minute – before waving away the medicos and breaking into a jog on the way to the bench. When Vaughan was jeered by the crowd, he put one hand up to an ear and then signaled with the other that they should give him more. Why was it so strange? Because this all happened with the Welsh preparing for a line dropout – it was they who needed a spell! “I got a bit of a hit in the knee and I thought the worst,” said Vaughan. “The boys had a bit of a roll-on. I probably put a halt to that. As soon as I had a bit of a jog, I was alright.”
GORDON BRAY EAT YOUR HEART OUT
IT was wonderful hearing the ground announcer at Cardiff use perfect continental pronunciations for the names of Italy’s largely Australian squad– but stuff up the England side. The England halfback was “Ran-jee” Chase and the hooker was “James Robbi”. Question of the day came from the BBC’s Robbie (not Roby) Paul, who posited to Billy Slater in one of those new fangled halftime interviews that the game so far had been “a half of two halves”. Veteran BBC caller Ray French was fascinated that one of the Italians played for “Maroon Bar Miners’ – Moranbah. Italy coach Carlo Napolitano was asked about the split in the game there and insisted winning games internationally with the best available team was the best way to promote the sport and that the Azzurri had garnered domestic publicity already.
IF a team makes its World Cup debut and no-one sees it, has it really made its World Cup debut? On-selling the television rights to International Management Group may have made commercial sense to the RLIF but it has resulted in the disappointing situation of the games being shown nowhere but the internet in the United States and Italy, who are in the World Cup for the first time. IMG’s concern is making its money back, not promoting rugby league. And as for England coach Steve McNamara refusing to discuss why James Graham was not picked, how can one expect the passion and support of a public without feeling any accountability to that same public? The whole thing was poorly managed.
WIDE WORLD OF LEAGUE
HAVING watched rugby league over the past three weekends in Port Vila, Johannesburg and Cardiff, it is probably incumbent upon this writer to pass comment on the general state of the not-union. Despite the civil war in Super League and growing pains in the NRL, the amount of activity is quite remarkable. After a century stuck in the starting blocks, rugby league is starting to spread its wings somewhat; who would have though Welsh bootleggers would one day be flogging fake Italian rugby league merchandise in the streets? The World Cup opening ceremony was professional and classy but the best pictures of the weekend were the Greek team teaching Hungry how to pack a league scrum – directly before they played each other.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD