By STEVE MASCORD
SAM Devereux was a referee. He would wear a cap during matches, which made him look almost exactly like AC/DC singer Brian Johnson, fresh out of a time machine.
In 1928, the expatriot Englishman controlled a rugby league Test at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin. Until the just-completed Four Nations, it was the most recent Test played in the coastal South Island city.
A former Leigh and St Helens player, Devereux had settled in New Zealand and become the chief plumbing inspector for Dunedin City Council.
We were actually better at appointing neutral referees for internationals in 1928 than we are now. Phil Bentham, who controlled the New Zealand-England game at the magnificent Forsyth Barr Stadium on November 8, was also from Leigh – but unlike Devereux, had no connection at all with the Shaky Isles.
And had Bentham wanted to send off a Burgess during that gripping 16-14 Kiwis victory, he had two to chose from.
Our man Sam dismissed English forward Bill Burgess back in ’28. Despite this, England won – but Sam (Devereux, not Burgess) received a bad review for waiting too long to act.
He never controlled another game, quitting the sport entirely. His descendants told the story to the Otago Times as Test football returned to Dunedin for the first time in 86 years last month.
Why kick off this Four Nations review with such an obscure anecdote?
The story illustrates that some things don’t change in rugby league and other things change dramatically – and which ‘things’ are which is almost completely random, because very few people in the game have a long-term perspective on events.
The 2014 Four Nations has the capacity to prompt a paradigm shift for our sport, away from the parochial focus on club football, away from the belief that we can’t survive without our superstars, away from the idea that player burnout cannot be resolved, away from squeezing every last bit of juice out of the heartland orange.
But when that Test was played in Dunedin in 1928, there had been one just four years before. There was no reason to suspect they would have to wait another 86 years.
We either learn from things or we don’t. It’s up to us if we take anything of value away from the fantastic Four Nations, which finished with the Kiwis winning a gripping final, 22-18 over Australia at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on November 15.
Here are the things we should remember, or else this clipping will be used as another historical oddity in the year 2100 when we go back to Dunedin again.
- INTERNATIONAL SPORT IS BIGGER THAN ANY INDIVIDUALWITHOUT Billy Slater, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess, Anthony Milford, Johnathan Thurston, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, James Roby, Justin Hodges and the rest, the 2014 Four Nations was tipped to be “a yawn”. Yet 47,813 saw Samoa push England all the way and New Zealand thrash Australia at Suncorp Stadium to kick things off. The 25,093 attendance at the final made it a record-drawing Four Nations tournament. The reason is simple: in the eyes of the general public – as opposed to rugby league fanatics – international sport sits above club sport and always win. It has a lure all of its own; the jumper is more important than the face.
- RUGBY LEAGUE CAN BE SOLD OUTSIDE THE BIG CAPITALSA RUGBY league tournament in Australasia without a single match in Sydney or Auckland? It worked. This occurs in tandem with the previous point: international competition helps us reach exactly the people who are somewhat immune to our charms as a club sport. The 18,456 crowd at WIN Stadium on November 9 for Australia-Samoa was the biggest for any event in Wollongong this year. On top of – literally – the 16,912 at Whangarei’s Toll Stadium for New Zealand-Samoa on November 1 were two people up a tree. And of course, we returned to Dunedin after a rather long absence. Test football can widen our horizons within countries that already play the game, by giving us credibility that teams representing suburbs can never provide.4. 3. OUR SPORT COULD, AND SHOULD, BE MORE ENTERTAININGHISTORICALLY, rugby league swings from attack-focus to defence-obsession. The Four Nations should trigger a swing back towards attack – it sometimes embarrassed the NRL as being safety-first, structured and beset with wrestling. The Kiwis, in particular, seem to relish playing against anyone but Australia, and discarding the percentages in favour of skill, speed, and daring. Their games against Samoa and England were epics. But coach Stephen Kearney has made them adaptable, too: they can beat the Aussies at their own game and did so on consecutive occasions for the first time since 1953. But Samoa and England were arguably better to watch than the finalists. We need to incentivise entertaining play and discourage five hit-ups and a kick.
4. SAMOA ARE (MAYBE) OUR FOURTH COMPETITIVE NATION
AT the 1995 World Cup, Wales played England at an Old Trafford semi-final that attracted 30,042 people – including busloads of fans from the Valleys who have long since forgotten us. The English won by the respectable – for the Welsh – score of 25-10. In 2000, the Welsh led Australia at halftime in their semi. Yet the Dragons have not kicked on and we should be wary of getting carried away with Samoa for the same reason. Nonetheless, in their worst showing they were still 20 points better than in their only previous match against Australia. With Anthony Milford on board, it is reasonable to suggest they may have beaten England and New Zealand. The Kiwis need local, competitive opposition because internationals are the only way they make money. They may well have found an enduring new rivalry.
5. THE CANCELLATION OF THE 2015 LIONS TOUR WAS POINTLESS
TOP State of Origin players wanted next spring off to rest their weary bones. But a whole heap of them – 12 from Australia’s winning 2013 World Cup squad – took this year off as well! We had a successful, competitive tournament without them. If another 12 cried off in 2015 and the dozen unavailable this year returned, logic dictates Australia would be no more or less competitive against the first Lions tourists in 23 years – who were told to stay home. Great Britain were to play tour games in the bush, travel from Brisbane to Sydney by bus and maybe provide the first-ever opposition for the proposed Pacific All Stars. What a terrible waste of an opportunity. Now tours are supposed to be returning – after the 2017 World Cup – just when the Four Nations finally comes into its prime. There is enormous pressure on Scotland in 2016 to match the feats of Matt Parish’s Samoans.
- Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK