The much-maligned Welsh team restored some credibility to the 2000 Rugby League World Cup, thanks to a courageous 46-22 loss to Australia in a semi-final at Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium.
The match was shown live on television in Australia – around breakfast time – and a lot of people were late for work, as they stayed at home to watch the second half, after the Welsh led 20-8 after 30 minutes, and 20-14 at halftime. The weight of possession told in the end, and the Kangaroos crushed Wales in the last 20 minutes, with skipper, Brad Fittler and fullback, Darren Lockyer finishing with two tries each.
England, captained by Andy Farrell, had been belted 49-6 by New Zealand at Reebok Stadium, Bolton the night before, a match I also covered for News Ltd. So, the stage was set for a Trans-Tasman final at Manchester’s Old Trafford Stadium.
I had not enjoyed the Bolton match, because I wanted the home team to reach the final. The English were pathetic, and I wrote that English Rugby League had no need to fear cashed up rugby union clubs, because there was no-one in their line-up worthy of an offer.
On the other hand, the Welsh showed wonderful spirit, with hooker, Keiron Cunningham from St Helens, man of the match. I had seen his brother, Eddie play for Wales against France at Naughton Park, Widnes in 1978, and while Eddie was a very good player, Keiron was something special. Today there is a statue of Kieron outside St Helens’ Stadium.
Welsh five eighth, Lee Briers, who played outside Australian halfback, Allan Langer in club football at Warrington in 2000, kicked two field goals, one a 42-metre effort. Briers also scored the try of the match, when he plucked a Iestyn Harris bomb out of the arms of Lockyer. Harris was the target of cashed up Welsh rugby union clubs.
After the scare against Wales, Australian prop, Shane Webcke said the ‘Roos would be smashed in the final by the Kiwis, if they repeated that below par effort.
“Everyone, aside from the Aussie supporters, would love to see us get beaten,” Webcke said. “You saw the way the crowd turned on us tonight.”
The Huddersfield fans got right behind the Welsh, and it should be noted that Huddersfield Rugby League club has a rich tradition of Welsh players, the likes of Fred Talbot, Gwyn Richards, Mel Meek and Billy Johnson.
“We gave them a game and I think they will give us respect now,” said Welsh coach, Clive Griffiths, who was also on the staff of the Welsh rugby union side, under head coach, New Zealander, Graham Henry.
England Rugby League coach, John Kear was in danger of being sacked, with Australian, David Waite the favourite to succeed him.
The week leading up to the semi-finals began for me with lunch at Bryan’s Fish and Chippery at Headingley, at the invitation of good friend and noted sports photographer, Andrew Varley.
That night I had a few pints at a traditional Leeds’ pub, ‘Prince of Wales’, Swinegate with former Great Britain skipper, Mick Stephenson, who was working for SKYSport. I had played against ‘Stevo’ at Lang Park Park, in 1976, when he was with Penrith and I was playing for Brisbane Brothers. It was an Amco Cup match, and we won. ‘Stevo’ was still shaking his, 24 years later, about how that happened.
The Prince of Wales licensees, Angie and Paul, were league fans. So was their French waiter, Dominic from Brittany, who had been converted to the 13-man code. Olivier Olima, who would go on to captain France, was originally from Brittany, but started playing league when the family moved south to the Lot region.
After the Prince of Wales, I went to the Australian team hotel, the Queen’s where television reporter, Chris Bombolas was the only Australian in the piano bar.
On Wednesday, November 15 I attended a Wales – Australia press conference in Huddersfield, where I had a long chat to former Redcliffe player, Danny Russell, who had been playing for Huddersfield since 1997, after previously playing for Carlisle in Cumbria.
On Friday November 17 I accompanied the Australian team to the training base of Leeds United Soccer, near Wetherby. It was hard to know what impressed the Australian players more – the skills of the Leeds’ players or the combined worth of their cars.
“It’s not like Newcastle,” said Australian halfback/hooker, Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns. “There are no utes here.”
Several players posed beside the Corvette belonging to United’s Australian star, Harry Kewell, before getting to meet the man himself at his first full training session since damaging his achilles tendon several months earlier. After training they had a long chat with Leeds’ man of the moment, Mark Viduka, the Australian star who had scored five goals in his previous two Premier League starts.
Viduka won them over with his enthusiasm and humour, telling the Australians he had unsuccessfully tried to get a bet on with his English teammates, that Australia would win the World Cup.
‘Joey’ Johns couldn’t resist the temptation to try out his soccer skills, and put one past England’s reserve goal keeper, Nigel Martyn during an impromptu penalty shoot-out. From memory, Martyn, originally from Cornwall, aggravated a hamstring injury, diving to try to save Joey’s shot, and the Leeds United coaching staff were non-too pleased.
It was funny watching some of the Australian league players asking for autographs from the Leeds’ stars, while some of United’s academy players, one or two of them Australian, were asking for autographs from the Kangaroos.
Next up: The Final.