It was threatening to be a tremendous flop at one stage but overall I must say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Rugby League World Cup.
After witnessing successful tournaments in 2008 and 2013, my hopes were high for a great festival of the Greatest Game Down Under.
But with some sub-par crowds displayed the Aussies’ NRL and State of Origin-centric mindset fears were it was set to be the most disappointing tournament since the fiasco of 2000.
And then it was saved.
Undoubtedly the story of the competition, Tonga gave international rugby league its biggest shot in the arm in ages as the tipped pre-tournament dark horses beat the Kiwis in Hamilton and bring the tournament to life.
A further shock was still to come when the Kiwis succumbed to a 4-2 quarter-final defeat to Fiji, with the Bati captain Kevin Naiqama’s post-match tears an enduring image of the tournament.
My expectations of good crowds off the field but predictability on it had been completely inverted. While attendances have been a mixed bag (with great turnouts in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand), the tournament will be remembered for finally seeing the cartel of rugby league’s ‘Big 3’ broken.
And the drama continued in the semi-finals as England reached their first World Cup final in 22 years after seeing of the late Tongan resurgence to win 20-18 in Auckland.
What an occasion it was with a packed out 30,000 crowd of mostly fanatical Tongans making what mus have been an atmosphere unlike any other the English players had experienced.
As I had my head in my hands fearing a repeat of Shaun Johnson’s last-minute heart breaker in 2013 at Wembley, Adam Fifita was denied what would have been the match-winner in the last seconds as the Aussie ref ruled he’d knocked on. Looking at the replay I think he did get it right (England bias aside) and Whitehead went for the arm. Not that the thousands of Tongans who took to the streets of Auckland to demand a rematch will believe it.
Hopefully we’ll see the Tongans involved in more top-level international competition and that the tournament can leave a true legacy for a brighter future for international rugby league.
So, all that remains is the small matter of England against the Aussies in Brisbane for the final. Being a mere infant the last time we reached a final, this is the first World Cup final I’ll see England (or Great Britain) play in and I’m already looking forward to it, with the mercifully later kick-off of 9am making it easier to catch live.
While it would be a touch optimistic to say I think we’ll win, I’m confident we’ll push them close. England have improved gradually through the tournament, and were excellent for 70 minutes against Tonga.
There should be no danger of us switching off as we did last week and if we can put in another improved performance you never know.
We’ll certainly need the Kangaroos to be off their best but who knows, perhaps our first World Cup success in 45 years would be the perfect way to end a tournament of many ground-breaking rugby league stories.
Prediction: Australia by 10.