FROM WATFORD TO WIDNES FOR THE WORLD CUP

My decision to have an early night before a Rugby League World Cup quarter final, meant I missed a spectacular bar room brawl, with women the main participants. The fact the brawl was at the hotel housing the Australian team – and there were a few team members in the vicinity – meant it was ‘News’, and I was in trouble for not having the story, while other news services were on top of it.

The journalists who got the story were drinking in the bar at the time, and for all I know, may have been involved in the donnybrook. (No names, no pack drill). I was covering the tournament for The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and the Telegraph in Sydney, and the pressure was on, to come up with stories.

My decision to have an early night, to ensure I was bright eyed and bushy tailed for the footy the next day, backfired. At least in the eyes of hard to please sports editors. You can’t win.

The build-up to the World Cup quarter finals had been low key, although Australia’s opening match win against England at Twickenham was a fiery affair, tinged with controversy. Australia’s big wins over Fiji and Russia were expected, in the other preliminary round matches.

The Kangaroos were to face Samoa in the quarter final, at Vicarage Road, Watford. Today, that would be quite a contest, given a Samoan team chosen in 2021, would come almost entirely from the NRL, with a few thrown in from English Super League. But the Samoan team of 2000, while solid, lacked big names.

For the Australians, the week leading up to the Watford match began with a free Sunday, back in Leeds. With the aid of my Good Beer Guide, I found a back street pub, where I intended having a quiet ale, while reading the English papers. When I walked into the bar, there was Australian coach, Chris Anderson and player, Darren Britt. Chris knew the pub from previous visits to the UK. He thought I was following him. The female licensee remembered Chris, and especially former Test winger, Ian Schubert, from previous tours. They must have been good customers.

There was a women’s World Cup, and an Emerging Nations tournament being held at the same time as the main event, and when I left Australia, my intention was to get to some of those matches. But the fact is, my sports editors back in Australian couldn’t care less about those games. It was hard enough raising their interest in the World Cup. And it is so time consuming getting from A to B in the UK, despite the short distances.

I drove to London from Leeds on Thursday, November 9,and the next day, attended a morning tea for the Australian team at the House of Commons.

On match day, after digesting the news of the ‘cat fight’ (can you say that?) at the hotel the night before, I had a late breakfast at a diner run by Spaniards, and frequented by taxi drivers. It was Post House Forte Hotel where I was staying, and twice I had to go down to the street, when the hotel fire alarms sounded. Someone cooking toast in their room, I think.

I gave some of my (weary) fellow journos a lift to Watford, where we got lost in chaotic Saturday traffic. We finished up at the Horse and Chains pub at Bushey, (Hertfordshire), where we left our car, and caught a cab, making it to the game, just before kick-off. Australia belted Samoa 66-10 and I almost belted an Australian ‘supporter’, who kept standing up, in front of the press box. Bryan Fletcher scored three tries for the ‘Roos, while Andrew Johns, Scott Hill and Adam MacDougall grabbed two each. The Samoan rugby union side was beaten 50-6 by Wales in Cardiff on the same day.

Samoan league coach, Darrell Williams bemoaned the fact there were six Samoans playing for New Zealand in the World Cup. “New Zealand gets first choice of players, and that is something I want to change,” Williams said. New Zealand beat France 54-6 in another quarter final at Castleford the following day.

We got back to the Horse and Chains in time to watch the England v Ireland match from Leeds, on television – while enjoying a Bass ale – with the home side overcoming a spirited Irish side to win 26-16.

Back in London, I had what I would describe, as a ‘home cooked meal’ at an Italian restaurant, before adjourning to my hotel room, to write my stories.

I drove to Widnes the next day, accompanied by fellow journo, Steve Mascord, for the Wales v Papua New Guinea quarter final at Halton Stadium, buying outrageously priced fish and chips at Harry Ramsden’s at a Motorway stop. It was sunny the whole way, but pissed down the moment I opened the door of our car, at the stadium. It was the story of the tournament.

I had a lovely chat with Welsh dual rugby international, David Watkins and former England and Great Britain forward, Phil Clarke, before the game. David was there to call the match for a Welsh radio station. The interest in the match from Welsh people had intensified following the decision by Welsh coach, Clive Griffiths, to call-up John Devereux and David Moriarty from rugby union.

I had rung PNG coach, Bob Bennett about the ploy, and he went off.

“Is this the Rugby League World Cup or the Rugby Union World Cup,” said Bennett, the younger brother of Super coach, Wayne Bennett and a former teammate of mine at Brisbane Brothers. “What right do they have to play in this competition?”

Devereux and Moriarty had played league for quite a few years, but when union went professional during the Super League war, they made up their minds to return to their original code. The return of such stars to rugby left Welsh league in a precarious state, hence the SOS. It was generous in the extreme for the union clubs to release two of their star players.

Wales beat PNG 22-8 in a disappointing match, with Moriarty and Devereux getting a run from the bench. The first time Devereux took up the ball, he was smashed by PNG’s Stanley Gene. Welcome back to rugby league. Adrian Lam, the current coach of Wigan, captained PNG. New Zealander, David Pakieto refereed the match.

Being in Widnes, it was a chance for me to catch up with my great mate, Paddy Hart, which I did over a Tetley’s (ale) at the St Bede’s club, accompanied by Mascord. Also there was Brian Grady, who had I got to know while living in Widnes in 1977-78. I met Paddy in Australia in the 1970s. At St Bedes, they were raising money for a pilgrimage to Lourdes, in France.

Back in Leeds, I checked into my new hotel, the Crowne Plaza, a huge improvement on The Holiday Inn Express, where I had been staying. Australia had been drawn to play Wales in a semi-final at McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield, while England were to play New Zealand at Reebok Stadium, Bolton. Watch this space.

Australian coach, Chris Anderson

Wendell Sailor playing for Australia against Samoa in 2000

Gorden Tallis (right) playing for the Broncos against English club, Halifax in 1997. That’s Samoan star, John Schuster in the Halifax colours

Steve Mascord in the media box

Leave a comment or reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s