It was the Rugby League Ashes campaign which almost didn’t go ahead, because of terrorism.
The 2001 Australia v Great Britain and Ireland series was played over two weeks, taking its toll on players from both sides, with the Kangaroos losing the First Test, and then rebounding to claim the next two matches. Australian coach, Chris Anderson suffered a heart attack during the decider.
It was the first ‘fair dinkum’ Ashes series since 1994, although Australia’s Super League side had played a full-strength Great Britain in 1997, and won that series 2-1 in England, under the coaching of John Lang.
In 1999, Britain played in a Tri-series with Australia and New Zealand, ‘Down Under’, while in 2000, Britain had split into English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish sides.
Brad Fittler captained Australia in 1999 and 2000, but his hopes of leading the Kangaroos in 2001 were seemingly dashed when the Australian Rugby League announced it had cancelled the tour, following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Australia was involved in military strikes against Afghanistan, after the terrorist attacks, and it was felt our sporting sides could be targeted.
Fittler, and a number of senior players, most notably Broncos’ prop, Shane Webcke, publicly supported the cancellation of the tour, with Fittler and Webcke raising concerns about travelling overseas at such a volatile time.
Britain was so keen for the tour to go ahead (shades of this year’s cancelled World Cup), that it proposed a tour by an ANZAC squad. Ultimately, the ARL went back to the players, and the Kangaroo tour was reinstated, although Fittler made it clear he wasn’t happy with the way pressure was applied through the media.
It also wasn’t a good look that the Wallabies, coached by Eddie Jones, embarked on their Northern Hemisphere tour, playing games in England, Wales, France and Spain from October 28 to November 28.
Webcke stuck solid to his opposition to the Kangaroo tour, and stayed home. “I made my decision, and I’m happy with it,” he told The Sunday Mail’s Mike Westlake. “The thing that disappoints me is, that it was made out I was the one who tried to have the tour called off, but I never made my decision prior to the ARL making theirs.”
In his biography, ‘Freddy’, Fittler said he got a tidal wave of threats and abuse, because of his initial stand against the tour, with people calling him a coward.
“I expected the ARL to back me to the hilt. Instead, they left me high and dry,” he said. “I felt betrayed. To be fair to the ARL, though, there were numerous times when they covered for me when I missed plane flights and training sessions. But in 2001, it felt like the bad was outweighing the good.”
Great Britain, coached by Australian, David Waite, and captained by Englishman, Andy Farrell, won the First Test 20-12 in Huddersfield, with five eighth, Paul Sculthorpe the Man of the Match, after scoring two tries and kicking two field goals. Australian prop, Jason Stevens was cited and suspended on a charge of stomping opposing forward, Terry O’Connor.
Australia, fired up by a pre-match address from the legendary Mal Meninga, won the Second Test 40-12 at Bolton, with halfback, Andrew Johns scoring two tries and landing six goals.
The decider was played at Wigan’s JJB Stadium and proved a tense affair, with Australia leading 12-6 a halftime. During the break Anderson was taken to hospital amid fears he had suffered a heart attack. Back in Australia, he underwent triple by-pass surgery.
Five eighth, Trent Barrett scored two second half tries, and Australia silenced the crowd of 25,011 with the 28-8 win. Lock forward, Fittler, playing his last Test, landed the final conversion.
Andrew Johns was named Man of the Series, despite being in pain from a rib cartilage injury he had carried for the last six weeks of the NRL season. He also was awarded the Golden Boot as the best Rugby League player in the world.
I didn’t cover that tour for News Ltd. Not sure who got the job, actually. Our eldest son, Damien left on his own ‘Kangaroo tour’ on November 24, 2001, as a member of the Queensland Universities Rugby League side, which was to play matches in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. It was the start of annual leave for me, and my wife, Marie and I booked into accommodation at North Burleigh, and that’s where I watched the series decider, on television.
I had a good chat about the Ashes and Wallaby tours with Gold Coast based dual international, John Brass, over a beer at North Burleigh Surf Club.
Meanwhile, Queensland Universities, coached by Toowoomba’s John Dixon, opened their tour with a 24-4 win over England Students at Blackheath in London on November 28. Kingaroy High product, Brad Coey-Braddon from James Cook University in Townsville, scored four tries.