Wembley – England’s field of nightmares

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    The iconic Wembley Stadium. (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.

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (28)

    • November 25th 2013 @ 7:30am
      Muzz said | November 25th 2013 @ 7:30am | ! Report

      The emotional roller coaster that we all have been through watching our team play a near perfect game and then loose in the final minute or supporting your side that is favourite to win but is doing their best to loose and somehow in the dying minutes of a game the luck shifts and you come from behind to snatch the victory…We love these games but if its my team thats playing it will then normally take me 2 days to recover but as a Kangaroo supporter and with no emotional investment in the first semi final it was great entertainment.

      • Columnist

        November 25th 2013 @ 8:50am
        Kris Swales said | November 25th 2013 @ 8:50am | ! Report

        The English fans took it with remarkable good grace, if my team had lost like that I’d still be sobbing in the stands.

        • Roar Guru

          November 25th 2013 @ 2:50pm
          Sleiman Azizi said | November 25th 2013 @ 2:50pm | ! Report

          I still shudder thinking about that match.

          Ye gads but what a game.

    • November 25th 2013 @ 9:58am
      sham said | November 25th 2013 @ 9:58am | ! Report

      I was very much hoping that England would win. My son and I so enjoyed that second half and so cheered those English tries. Then for England to lose like that was heartbreaking – I was very deflated but on a positive note I enjoyed the spectacle and the game. I was so nervous with two minutes to go. Cooler heads would have kicked the ball into touch rather than kicking the ball straight down the middle and why make a head high tackle on Sonny Bill Williams with only a few minutes to go? A sad ending but it does not take away the incredible effort before then.

      I see that Ireland got beaten by the All Blacks overnight on the bell – that would have been even more heartbreaking as Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks.. I personally hated it when Australia beat Ireland with that effort from Michael Lyagh. There is romance in the underdog winning. There is no romance in Australia winning in league or the All Blacks winning in rugby.

      • November 25th 2013 @ 10:19am
        cowelly said | November 25th 2013 @ 10:19am | ! Report

        Or Man U ever winning!

    • November 25th 2013 @ 10:19am
      The eye said | November 25th 2013 @ 10:19am | ! Report

      What an excellent piece of writing,cheers !That performance has certainly changed my image of English rugby league,need a bit more time for Sam B. though.

    • November 25th 2013 @ 10:42am
      maximillian said | November 25th 2013 @ 10:42am | ! Report

      what a great game! Im a NZer so I was supporting the Kiwis all the way but I genuinely felt bad for England after they lost. They were by far the better team in that match & they deserved to be in the final IMO.

      There had been a misconception in NZ that we had the best front rowers but Burgess & Graham made the Kiwi forwards look average. I thought the Kiwis would steamroll Australia through the middle 3rd in the upcoming final but after the weekends performance, Im not so sure. The final will be a good game though & I cant wait.

      • Columnist

        November 25th 2013 @ 6:43pm
        Kris Swales said | November 25th 2013 @ 6:43pm | ! Report

        Matt Scott really wound up against Fiji as well – quality of the opposition aside, I think the Aussies will be thankful to not be hitting the final as battered and bruised as NZ, who did get dominated. A once-in-a-lifetime performance from Sam Burgess certainly helped, he was immense.

        • November 27th 2013 @ 1:23pm
          Raugeee said | November 27th 2013 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

          So was James Graham! I never realised he had so many metres in him.

    • November 25th 2013 @ 10:55am
      Millsy said | November 25th 2013 @ 10:55am | ! Report

      Awesome game the best all year

    • Roar Guru

      November 25th 2013 @ 11:00am
      ScottWoodward.me said | November 25th 2013 @ 11:00am | ! Report

      I think England could have beaten Australia they played that well.

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