Not since 1997 has there been an international game of Rugby League at our national stadium, where Great Britain were soundly beaten 38-14 by a weakened Australian ‘Super League’ test team in a rather dull and very low key affair. You can understand why the RFL took so long to muster up the confidence to return there, but boy am I glad they did.
Back in July when the Four Nations fixtures were announced, I was immediately excited to learn that the Wembley double header was planned for the tournament. I was too young to go the last time an international was played there, and Wembley was the setting for one of my earliest Rugby League memories; The infamous test match in 1994, where Shaun Edwards got sent off for a horrible high tackle before Jonathan Davies skinned the superhuman (in my humble opinion as an over-excited seven year old) Australian defence as Great Britain held on for a memorable victory. I so wanted to be there.
Fast forward 17 years and the RFL had finally given me the opportunity to watch my national team play the old enemy; I wasn’t going to miss it for the world! I booked four tickets for me and my mates; early bird offers of just £30 each for two top class games in some of the best seats in the house was very reasonable I thought… Add in the fact that we got two twin rooms just 400 meters from the stadium at the Wembley Plaza hotel for £59 each, plus £10 for 48 hours in the car park and we were on to a winner, no matter what the results. The early bird catches the worm as they say!
I spent all of Friday afternoon watching YouTube clips of past Great Britain and England teams smashing the Aussies. Admittedly there wasn’t that many, but there was enough to convince me that England had a real chance of winning. I hit the road from Leeds with a van full of friends after the Friday rush hour with a bag full of sausage rolls, and a real sense of optimism fresh in our minds.
After a quick hot breakfast on Saturday morning we were ready to roll. Walking up Wembley way soaking up the atmosphere really got the nerves going, and it was nice to see so many other fans of all ages enjoying themselves too. We had the pleasure of meeting a few former league players Toa Kohe Love, Andy Gregory, Ellery Hanley & Andy Farrell (with his son Owen) around the Bobby Moore statue. I reckon a statue of Ellery Hanley would fit in pretty well around there…
We took our seats just as New Zealand finished the Haka – an awesome sight in either code of rugby – and we were ready for kick off. Everyone seemed to be expecting a heavy Welsh defeat, but to their credit they battled on to the final hooter, with Lee Briers and Craig Kopzcak deserving special mentions for their efforts. It was a shame they didn’t manage to get on the scoreboard, but they can take a lot of positives from the 36-0 result, when many others thought New Zealand would hit at least 60. Wales will undoubtedly come away from this tournament having learnt a lot about themselves, and hopefully this will stand them in good stead for the World Cup in just two years time.
Moving on to the main event of the day (no disrespect to Wales or New Zealand) and I was now very excited. The brass band and choir did an amazing job in whipping up the atmosphere before the anthems, and the opening half certainly didn’t disappoint. The game was played at a truly scintillating pace, and tries from Luke Lewis and Tony Williams and two Jonathan Thurston conversions were enough to give the Kangaroos a four point lead at the break, despite two absolutely world-class finishes from Leeds Rhinos winger Ryan Hall, the first try reminded me of the kind of things I imagined what the ‘Superhuman’ Aussies were capable of, back when I was seven. And if ever the importance of giving our international game the biggest audience possible by showing the game on terrestrial TV was highlighted, it was now, as Ryan Hall was trending across twitter after his amazing efforts! The crowd was bubbling with excitement at the 40 minutes of drama that they just saw, and they wanted 40minutes more.
Greg Inglis restored the Kangaroos lead to 10 points soon into the second half, but with all great sporting stories there is always a twist or two, and unfortunately for England, both twists in this fascinating story cruelly went against them. First Warrington second-row Ben Westwood was floored with a late and high forearm by Manly forward Tony Williams – a challenge which many onlookers to be considered a red card – but crucially, it was only put on report. England will feel especially hard done by as Williams has since been charged with a dangerous tackle, and now faces a one-match ban against Wales.
The second twist came just moments later, when Hull winger Tom Briscoe looked certain to score but for a last ditch tackle from Darius Boyd, although Briscoe managed to somehow stretch out and ground the ball. The England fans went wild but Kiwi referee Henry Perenara immediately disallowed the try for a double-movement without consulting the video referee, despite video replay’s showing that Briscoe appeared to ground the ball legally. Cronulla’s Paul Gallen then dealt England a hammer blow by scoring to effectively kill any hopes of an England victory.
Tries from Chris Heighington and Jack Reed provided further evidence that this England team is made of pretty stern stuff and are capable of taking it to the Aussies. The performance was certainly there, if unfortunately the result wasn’t. More importantly though, the performance was there in front of a big crowd in our iconic national stadium, live in front of an even bigger audience on terrestrial TV. This is exactly what international Rugby League should be about. Surely now the foundations are there to build on in time for the 2013 World Cup, and for an Wembley test match to once again become a permanent fixture on the Rugby League calendar whenever England are at home.
With England and New Zealand currently only separated by points scored, the fixture at Hull’s KC Stadium next week is now shaping up to be a Semi-Final of epic proportions, a Semi-Final that both teams will firmly believe that they can win despite injury concerns to key figures in both camps. Here’s hoping that both teams can field their strongest sides possible. I already have my ticket for the game, and I am literally counting down the days until these great athletes take to the field once again. A sell-out crowd in the Rugby League hotbed of Hull will surely provide a phenomenal backdrop to a phenomenal game.
International Rugby League is dying? No chance. It’s suddenly the hottest ticket in town. All I ask is, have you got yours yet?