Testicle grabbing and hand stomping. It was all part of the England v Australia World Cup rugby league match at London’s Twickenham Stadium on October 28, 2000.
It was the feature match of round one of the tournament, and was being held at Twickenham as a symbol of reconciliation between the two rugby codes.
The match was a throw back to traditional Anglo-Australian league Tests, and, to the league purist, was a welcome return to hostilities, after Great Britain had meekly surrendered to Australia and New Zealand during the 1999 Tri-series ‘down under’.
I covered the Twickenham match for News Limited, and afterwards, at the reception, interviewed Australian prop, Jason Stevens and teammate, Mat Rogers, both Cronulla-Sutherland players.
They were still on a high after the 22-2 win, which they said was surely reminder of the blood and guts affairs of earlier decades, when Mat’s Dad, Steve represented the Kangaroos.
Stevens told me he loved the contest. “They were putting in a bit of dirt, and we were doing the same. There was a bit everything. They’re a tough side”
Rogers said some English players were guilty of testicle grabbing and hand stomping.
“So were some Aussies, let me tell you,” Rogers said.
When my story his the streets, there was hell to pay in the halls of power, given the almost gleeful references to foul play. There were meek denials by Stevens and Rogers, who claimed they were talking off the record, or were misquoted, this is despite the fact that during my interview I was writing in my notepad, as well as recording what they had to say.
My 2000 World Cup adventure had begun with a short holiday in the south of England, with my wife Marie.
We had driven from Heathrow, intent on staying with friends, Paul and Maggie Dobson at their Dover, Kent abode, but floodwaters stopped us, and we spent the first two nights in a hotel in Eastbourne, on the East Sussex Coast.
Our lunch stop was the ‘Black Rabbit’ pub, just outside Arundel in West Sussex, where there was a sign at the car park entrance, declaring that ‘this area will flood between 1 and 2 p.m.’, because of the tidal nature of the River Arun and the flood waters coming from inland.
From Eastbourne we explored Beachy Head and enjoyed a lovely lunch at Eight Bells pub in the Cuckmere Valley.
Our Eastbourne hotel featured a ‘singing chef’, who gave my wife a kiss as we left.
When we made it to Dover, we drove east to Deal for fish and chips, and that night watched the Super League grand final at The Cricketers, with Paul Dobson convincing the licensee to put ‘that northern game’ on the big screen. A former Lancashire lad, who was having a drink in the pub, was delighted.
On our way north, Marie and I stayed at the Robin Hood Hotel in the Midlands’ ‘Black Country’, from where we explored deepest, darkest Shropshire, as well as walking the canals around the glass works area.
From there we explored the Peak District of Derbyshire before booking in with friends, Martin and Barbara Richards at Standish in Greater Manchester. Martin was a league writer for the Daily Mirror, and a devoted Wigan fan.
When Marie and I arrived in Leeds, I was disappointed to discover that our accommodation (Holiday Inn Express) was miles away from the Australian team’s hotel, The Queens.
Somehow, News Ltd had confused the Holiday Inn Express with the Holiday Inn in the city centre.
The Kangaroos, coached by former Test winger, Chris Anderson, landed in the UK 48 hours after my arrival in Leeds. I met them at Manchester Airport for their first press conference, which was well attended, but nowhere near as big as the Wallabies would experience for a regulation tour.
I was back at Manchester Airport the following day for the arrival of the Russian and Samoan teams. Rob ‘Bertie’ Campbell, an Australian with Russian heritage, stole the show with some of his outrageous comments.
When the Australians shifted base to London, we (journalists included) were guests at the House of Commons.
At the official media promotion for the Twickenham match, Prince Andrew met both teams, and had a great laugh with skipper, Brad Fittler and the Aussies, while appearing far more serious in his dealings with Andy Farrell and the English.
On the day of the match, it rained incessantly, and to add to the woes of the World Cup organisers, there was a train strike, which meant many people from league’s heartland in the north, could not make the trip south.
Over 40,000 tickets had been pre-sold, but the attendance for the match was only 33,758.
But rugby league was being played at ‘Twickers’, the home of rugby union, and who would have thought that a few years earlier, when just to have played amateur league could have meant a lifetime ban from rugger.
Twickenham’s Museum of Rugby featured a display on the history of the two codes of rugby – titled ‘Leagues Apart’- and it was well done, with no bias against league.
There were a few rugby journos at the match, and, one in particular had an arrogant attitude towards the 13 man game. It wouldn’t have mattered what happened on the field, he would have bagged it.
It was a good, tough game. I have certainly seen Tests of lesser quality. But it wasn’t a classic, with the weather obviously playing a big role.
It was willing, even vicious. It was Australia v the Poms in rugby league, and, in the world of team sport, it doesn’t get any tougher than that.
Just ask Mat Rogers and Jason Stevens.
Photo 1: England fullback, Kris Radlinski
Photo 2: Steve Ricketts’ story on the World Cup match at Twickenham. That’s Australian second rower, Gorden Tallis being tackled.