Wembley – England’s field of nightmares

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    Wembley plays host to the FA Cup final. (Image supplied)

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    With cricket’s Ashes series and the Liverpool derby to distract the London media’s attention, you could be forgiven for not knowing the Rugby League World Cup semi-finals are on at Wembley at all.

    It doesn’t help that Lillywhites, the multi-storey sporting goods department store on iconic Piccadilly Circus, has a single rack of England jerseys hidden in the back corner of a floor devoted to football kits of every imaginable colour and creed.

    People do know about the RLWC, though. My Indian-English customs officer enquires about my presence in the national capital as I make my way through Heathrow, then echoes the tired air of several generations of English sports fans – England just aren’t that good at rugby league.

    When I tell him I expect the Poms to take down the Kiwis in the first leg of the Wembley double-header, he raises a quizzical eyebrow before stamping my passport and wishing me luck.

    24 hours and one hangover later, we’re off the Metropolitan line and on the walk to Wembley – a stadium which in 1985 entered an eight-year-old in regional Queensland’s imagination via Live Aid and the Challenge Cup Final between Hull and Wigan.

    If even two of the teams today turn on a contest like that, it’s going to be quite the day out.

    The arch of the new Wembley is visible as soon as you start the kilometre walk from the train station, the stadium rising out of the ground with an imposing stature that brings to mind Unicron, the planet-eating planet from the original animated Transformers movie.

    A group of rowdy young lads drink rocket fuel out of two-litre soft drink bottles; adult spectators enjoy the sun with a couple of beers; others marvel about what’s so divine about the food being dished out at Divine Sausage.

    The temperature drops five degrees as soon as you get among the stadium’s concrete, though slivers of sun are still shining through as England and New Zealand stroll onto the field.

    A choir has already primed the 67,000-plus crowd with some stirring hymns, and now the musical backing track is so stupendous that you want to throw on a jersey – any jersey, really – and get down on that field and bleed for your mates.

    The English players, particularly captain Kevin Sinfield, look like the weight of several worlds is bearing on their shoulders.

    The pressure certainly isn’t coming from the stands, though, as the crowd seem reluctant – or afraid – to pile any expectation on them.

    Then something strange happens. For 79 and a bit minutes, England put in as good a performance from a team in a white jersey as I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    Sinfield, Garath Widdop and a steamrolling Sam Burgess have the games of their lives. New Zealand look tired, rattled, and bereft of ideas on how to break through the white wall.

    With a few minutes left, I turn to my English mate – still shellshocked by the news his beloved Everton have snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Liverpool – and say, “mate, I think you can dare to dream.”

    A poor Sinfield clearing kick, a George Burgess high shot and a poor Sinfield defensive read later, and Shaun Johnson is diving over the tryline like a spear through the heart of a nation.

    Hearts that had finally healed from the scars of Mal Meninga’s last minute match-winner at Old Trafford in 1990 now have a fresh hole in them.

    English players, some not even old enough to know what rugby league was when that match happened, are unable to move from the patch of grass on which they dropped when Johnson’s try levelled the scores.

    He kicks the conversion and the score ticks over to 20-18 after the final siren has sounded.

    The Kiwis are off to Old Trafford; the Poms are off to roll the tapes of those crazy closing stages in their nightmares for decades.

    The London Broncos might be on the brink of becoming one of history’s footnotes – and, according to old boys of Fulham’s once great rugby league club who sat in front of me, they weren’t representative of the game’s following in London anyway – but if games like this don’t get rugby league a place of prominence in the sports pages, nothing ever will.

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