I wish I could say there was a great sense of anticipation across the UK, as the countdown began to the 2000 Rugby League World Cup final at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Australia and New Zealand had qualified for the final, after the host nation, England had been thrashed by the Kiwis 49-6 in Bolton, while Australia had advanced with a hard fought 46-22 win over Wales in Huddersfield.
At the best of times for rugby league in the UK, the public is still besotted with football (soccer), so a World Cup final without England was always going to be a hard sell.
Not so, back in Australia, where readers of the News Limited press still wanted a hefty dose of rugby league, despite it being cricket season, with the Ashes series about to get underway.
One of the great story lines was the fact Broncos’ star, Tonie Carroll would be turning out for the Kiwis. He was Christchurch born, but Queensland raised, and had already played State of Origin.
From Monday to Friday, I filed a host of previews , after attending Australian and New Zealand media conferences and training runs, ahead of the November 25 tournament climax. There was time for the odd social function, such as the Rugby League Writer’s dinner.
My previews complete, I drove to Hawick in the Scottish Borders on the eve of the final, to catch up with friends, Linda and Elliot Gibson, who had been so kind to my supporters’ tour in 1998. On the drive from Leeds to Hawick, I had one pub stop, at the ‘County’ in Aycliffe Village, County Durham, before crossing the border, near Bonchester Bridge.
I thought Linda and Elliot would want a quiet night, but Elliot decided we should do a pub/club crawl, which went into the wee small hours, with legendary local bagpiper, ‘Cammie’ playing a tune down the phone to my wife, Marie back in Brisbane, much to the annoyance of the residents of apartments in the central business area of Hawick.
On the day of the final, I Ieft Hawick with a heavy heart and an even heavier head. When I saw a car on the M6 with ‘Rugby Football League’ emblazoned on the side, I knew it was heading to Old Trafford, so I just followed.
Glen Workman, an Australian in the New Zealand camp, had tipped a Kiwi win because of their work ethic. Workman, a former Valleys’ player, was one of the Kiwis’ team trainers. He said it was not uncommon for the players to wake him for a gym session, a stint with the boxing gloves or a road run. Workman, a former hooker with Valleys in Brisbane, and the Gold Coast Vikings in the State League, had been in England for 12 years, mainly with London Broncos.
Australia won the final 40-12 in a high-quality match, with the Kangaroos leading only 18-12 with 13 minutes left. Australian scored the only try of the first half, with centre, Matt Gidley touching down after a deft kick by man of the match, Wendell Sailor, who scored two tries of his own. Mat Rogers kicked six goals.
Halfback, Brett Kimmorley’s kicking game ensured the Kiwis were always under pressure. Future ‘Immortal’, Andrew Johns played hooker, something he wasn’t altogether happy with.
Englishman, Stuart Cummings controlled the game, and kept things flowing, with penalties finishing 3-all. The crowd was 44,329, with most fans getting behind the Kiwis, while at the same time appreciating the skill, speed and strength of the Kangaroos.
Australian coach, Chris Anderson rated the side better than the 1982 undefeated Kangaroos. Anderson was a player on that tour, which I also covered. I would back the ’82 side.
The next day I walked to the team hotel, ‘The Queens’, as Leeds United soccer fans headed off to the pubs before the home match against Arsenal at Elland Road. Australian rugby league assistant coach, Steve Anderson and other members of the staff were also heading to ‘the pub’. A very hoarse, Ben Davis from Channel 7, Brisbane was waiting to interview Australian prop, Jason Stevens. Pat Molihan from Channel 7, Sydney had been up until 9 a.m., and it looked like it.
Budding coach, Brian Noble, a former Great Britain skipper, was in the bar waiting to meet Australian coach, Chris Anderson. Darren Lockyer came through reception wearing a sombrero and carrying a bottle of Scotch. He would have loved Elliot Gibson’s pub crawl in Hawick.
I thanked Chris Anderson for his help, and skipper, Brad Fittler bade me farewell, as did Gorden Tallis, who had captained Australia in the match against Russia in Hull. Anderson had given me a final interview, in which he once again raised the spectre of rugby league becoming a second-rate sport to a cashed-up rugby union. He also blasted Australian coaches in England for producing robotic players, instead of allowing the local lads the freedom to express themselves, as they had done in the past.
Before the World Cup, Anderson thought it was inevitable that league and union would come together. But for the time being, he believed league offered a far better spectacle.
“Union is cashed up, and they are coming after our best,” Anderson said. “I would hate to think the next generation of Brad Fittlers will be playing union.”
Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor switched to union in 2002. Lote Tuqiri, who played for Fiji in the League World Cup, switched to union in 2003. Andrew Walker, who had played league for Australia in 1996, had switched to union in 2000.
When I checked out of my hotel, I noticed they had charged me 25 pounds for the newspaper, ‘USA Today’. The last time I had looked at USA Today it did not have rugby league in the sports section, so it was unlikely I would have had it delivered to my room, at News Ltd’s expense. The amount was taken off the bill.
I drove south from Leeds to Doddington in Gloucestershire, where I stayed the night at the magnificent country home of Frank and Jane Kennedy. They had bought the house off a Danish firm, and it included an indoor heated lap pool, where Frank conducted lessons. He also ran an antiques sales business.
The roast chicken dinner provided by Jane was a treat, and Frank and Jane’s children, Edward and Jane were a delight. Their dogs, Phoebe and Buzzer were hilarious, and allowed the family cat to sleep with them.
The next day I drove to London, to return my hire car, and to spend my last night in the UK – at the Sheraton, Heathrow – before the flight home.
I stopped at the Kings Head Hotel at Bledington, but thought it too posh. The patrons appeared to be rugby buggers. Instead, I stopped at the Chequers, Chipping Norton. Doesn’t sound posh, does it?
After checking into the Sheraton, I walked along the Bath Road to the White Horse, Longford – with the River Colne at the rear – for my last English ales. There were two Kiwis behind the bar, and the English manager had worked in Western Australia and Bondi. I drank with Ron Ibbitson, a retired Monarch Airlines pilot, who was born in Yorkshire and was about to emigrate to New Zealand’s South Island.
It did not seem like five weeks earlier that I had been in London, reporting on the Australia and England sides meeting Prince Andrew at Twickenham, ahead of the opening round of the tournament. It had been great to catch up with English journalist friends, such as Martin Richards and Ray Fletcher and their respective wives, Barbara and Muriel. And I had enjoyed the company of my fellow Australian journalists, the likes of Steve Mascord, Brad Walter and Maria Hawthorne.
But the wettest English autumn in memory had made it a testing time in many respects, and I was delighted to be heading home to the joys of an Australian summer.
FOOTNOTE: In 2015, my wife, Marie and I had drinks at the Kings Head, Bledington, and didn’t think it posh at all.