Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

It would be easy and understandable for rugby league fans to descend into a trough of Monday despair after having seen the sport claw its way back into the nation’s consciousness only for it to deliver a capitulation rather than the, as-billed, challenge, come centre stage.

Sitting back and admiring an undeniable masterclass is fine but Langtree was more bloodied nose than bloodletting.

Nevertheless, the usually taciturn but charismatic Wayne Bennett – overseeing his seventh World Club game at the DW Stadium some 22-and-a-half years after his first – succinctly summed up the concept.

“To me they are not really debateable issues. You’ve got a ground that was sold out here tonight and that’s the best endorsement we’ve got for what we’ve done. It’s a bit the Nines in New Zealand, our game’s not that great that we can’t afford to take these opportunities. It was a great contest, far from an exhibition game, it was genuine, it was real.”

Wherever you view it from, unless that’s cowering behind a sofa in St Helens, the World Club Series worked; take a bow organisers.

Yes, our champions, on a night when sensational on-line gang-defence from the Bunnies prevented them from scoring three first-half tries, were taught a lesson.

But not one we don’t already know about. Super League and the NRL are not comparable, that’s the reality not a reality check so, rather than ridiculous introspection after 80 minutes – even if it was on the national stage we crave – lets indulge ourselves with the positives, get some perspective (it is 45 years since we won a Test series after all), stop apologising, hand-wringing and, in the case of some of the commentary, treating fans with near-contempt – we know what we are watching and what constitutes a contest.

Nothing’s changed. Because of the inherent intensity in the NRL borne out of so many athletes playing the sport as first choice there – the monies accruing are a result of that and spent equally – any side on any day there can be world beaters.

In eight seasons Souths have gone from wooden-spooners to the best on the planet, we still have only four sides who have won the Super League in close on 20 years. We should celebrate those of them who have gone on and won World Club Challenges; it is an incredibly tough ask.

All the NRL teams over the weekend did the basics of game management magnificently and instinctively; they kicked superbly, their last-ditch, try-saving defence was awesome, they won the collisions, their last tackle plays were better constructed and they won the territorial battle.

Oh, and despite the turgid stereotype we have of them, they love to play what they see, it’s just that they don’t get as many opportunities to exhibit that in the cancelling-out world of the NRL.

Because of the anti-climactic result in the showcase headliner, supporters of the WCS are seen as apologists, but they shouldn’t be. The fans voted with their feet, the players endorsed, sponsors came on board and the PR was unprecedented in recent times.

We found and embraced the celebrity endorsement, and how, with almost all of it centred around Russell Crowe.

Yes he had his directorial film debut to promote but as Jonathan Lieu noted in the Daily Telegraph, one of a host of features that reflected glory on league, “In a sport constantly probing new frontiers, searching for new audiences, awaiting the kick that will take it to the next level, it is no exaggeration to say that Crowe is the sport’s single most precious asset.” 

The helicopter-arriving A-lister had the media eating out of his palm and even created his own post-match hashtag #letsgrowthisgametogether.

He was the headline as the highlights featured on the national BBC News bulletin late Sunday night, the Super League Show also broadcast nationwide thereafter.

The event – and his endorsement – allowed us to go up a notch; rugby league with its dinner’s, film premieres, social media stings and appearances on other mainstream programmes appeared out of its comfort zone and grown up.

We even managed to move from ‘Greg Inglis is going to union’ as the initial build up to the handing out of South Sydney Premiers hats to the presenters of Channel Four’s Last Leg, who also went to the game.

Naturally, there was focus on the referee interpretations, which were more, unexpectedly, State of Origin leeway but allowed flow.

Debate initially centred on the high challenges at the Halliwell Jones that went card-unpunished especially given the initial rounds of Super League. What the clattering contacts did illustrate was a huge physical disparity between victim and assailant which made the impact even more dramatic.

Anthony Gelling gave even the most-hardened follower a moment of madness to remember the competition by and to show that it genuinely mattered, the ovation he received and acclaimed as he paraded round post yellow card, founded in our roots of defiance.

Full marks to Warrington for inaugurating the Harry Bath trophy for their game. Samuel Jackson-gate rumbled on, there was talk of the opening round of the NRL being at Wembley in 2016.

The answer to the question of how we bridge the quality gap has again been supplied by Shane Richardson, we need less games here not more. That really would herald a new era.

The broadest of smiles the morning after are in Redfern.

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