International rugby league? Be careful what you wish for

Matt Cleary Columnist

By , Matt Cleary is a Roar Expert

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    The depth of international rugby league will again come under scrutiny in this upcoming World Cup, and you can take that however you like.

    You can let it upset you. You can nod along. You can eat a packet of Doritos.

    For mine, better to just enjoy the footy.

    And acknowledge that international rugby league is better than it was. Maybe better than it’s ever been.

    Twenty years ago, in the middle of the internecine Super League War, Australia had two national rugby league competitions, two ‘Origin’ series and one international match.

    And they were vexed times at Ridgemont High.

    With the ‘establishment’ Australian rugby league laying claim to dinkum State of Origin (Super League came up with a tri-series with New Zealand, which was bad), the rebel Super League opened the purse strings to sign not only many of Australia’s best players but also entire leagues from Britain, New Zealand and the Pacific islands.

    They had no money. Then News Ltd gave the millions. No argument.

    So while the ARL played ‘official’ State of Origin fixtures, it was Super League that laid claim to internationals, such that they were.

    But as Fairfax’s Danny Weidler wrote: “International rugby league has as much credibility as some of Mal Colston’s travel claims. And at this point, so does the ‘Vision’.”

    The ‘Vision’ was rugby league played around the world, run by News Ltd. It was a bold vision indeed, and somewhat fanciful.

    “I’d like to see it like rugby union and played in as many countries,” said Laurie Daley. “I know that won’t happen when I’m a player, but when I retire I’d like to help make that happen.”

    The whole thing sucked.

    No matter that it was the official Australian international jumper, the Super League version of the Kangaroos’ kit did not look right. A splash of Federation Blue clanged against the wattle gold and eucalypt green.

    And the single fat ‘V’ stripe that ran down the front and back of the jersey and outwards onto the sleeves, was a poor imitation of the traditional golden twin-Vs and crest of Australia.

    Throw a big fat Super League logo on the chest, and it never felt like Australia’s jumper.

    Today that first Anzac Test is not listed in the records of the ARL. It is by the NZRL, however, and Kiwis who played in this fixture earned a cap, Australians did not. But the match did happen.

    And you can check it out on the YouTube now. And see this:

    After a less-than-emphatic haka led by Kiwis captain Stephen Kearney, English referee Stuart Cummins whistled time-on and the two tribes went to war.

    And it was scrappy early. Big hits caused turnovers. Ordinary bombs rained.

    A big thumper called Grant Young of New Zealand took a power of stopping. The Kiwis’ fine back-row – Kearney, Tony Iro, Tawera Nikau – ran the edges hard.

    Allan Langer was typically excellent for Australia and debutant Craig Gower kicked well.

    And after 20 minutes it was 0-0.

    And then it was all Australia.

    David Furner went on a dummying, bullocking run to plunge over on debut.

    Within minutes he had a double.

    Matt Adamson then steamed through weak defence and found Wendell Sailor who ran an angle and under the posts, beaming.

    Ryan Girdler missed the conversion, and then kicked off, it was a rule.

    Further strong work by Adamson and Sailor had a double. And at half-time it was 20-0.

    The Kiwis did not give up and came back with tries to Stacey Jones, Robbie Paul, Daryl Halligan and Sean Hoppe. But Darren Smith and Gower crossed for Australia and the Test match never reached anything much above anti-climax.

    Afterwards Glenn Lazarus said: “It was just the same feeling as pulling on the old green and gold jumper. No different.” Rodney Howe declared: “This was the best day of my life.”

    Weidler reported that “there was spirit in the crowd’s support, which said they were either hired or had paid for a ticket. One source told The Sun-Herald that only 3,800 tickets had been sold and a gate attendant reported that he did not have a single genuine ticket come through his gate.

    “Nonetheless, any crowd of 20,000 for a league Test is a good result.

    “One thing was clear, the players were genuine and Australia played very well, especially in the first half.

    “The team that Ken Arthurson labelled a ‘joke’ in last week’s Sun-Herald proved once again that we could send our third or even fourth best sides into an international league event and still come away winners.”

    After Super League’s ‘Test’ and the ARL’s City-Country match, veteran league scribe Ian Heads put together a merit team of players from both camps. There were ten ARL men and seven Super Leaguers.

    “The team was picked with a myth in mind: that Australia next week were facing the challenge of top-class British or New Zealand opponents in a true Test – the way international matches used to be played,” wrote Heads.

    “There’s no doubt that the talent is almost equally shared, and that the fans will continue to be robbed of the best of the best until the opposing camps get together.”

    Vexed days indeed.

    Bring on the Cup.

    Matt Cleary
    Matt Cleary

    Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website.