By STEVE MASCORD
THERE’S a flipside to all this, I am assured; a glass half-empty perspective on the emergence of Fiji and Tonga as rugby league powers. There are apparently reasons why it’s bad for the game.
On Saturday at Mt Smart Stadium, your roving correspondent struggled to see any. By the time I got to Penrose, two and a half hours before kick-off in the second semi-final, there were already thousands of people outside. Split Enz, a precursor to the most successful Kiwi band of all time, Crowded House, had a song that summed it up: “I See Red”.
Watching the Mate Ma’a in Hamilton and Christchurch, I was prepared for the flags. I wasn’t prepared for streets being blocked off. I wasn’t prepared for Santa Claus with Tongan-flag sunglasses. I wasn’t prepared for a hymn being sung by 25,000 people when their team was down 20-0.
The goose bumps looked like little Everests.
What a contrast that was to the previous night in Brisbane; with due respect to the Australian and Fijian players, this was a flat occasion. The action was at the cricket; half an hour before kick-off reporters were googling “smallest crowd for a rugby league game at Suncorp Stadium”.
It wasn’t anywhere near the smallest and 22,000 would be a good roll-up had we been at KC Stadium or Wigan.
But the Bati never really got out of the blocks. Six tries to one player in a World Cup semi-final … it’s an improvement on 64-0 in the corresponding game in 2013 and Fiji did beat New Zealand the previous week.
Afterwards, Fiji captain Kevin Naiqama said – as these players all do – that the gap between three and four (or is it now two and three?) will only be closed with more games.
But his coach, Michael Potter, offered a word of caution. Potter is also an assistant coach at Newcastle. “Clubs are reluctant to release their players for Test matches,” he said, matter-of-factly.
This is what we’re up against. This is why it is far from guaranteed the game will build on anything positive we’ve seen over the past six weeks. Wales played semi-finals in 1995 and 2000 – look at them now.
England’s performance for 74 minutes on Sunday suggested they might trouble Australia if the Aussies are off their game. But the final six minutes, in which they conceded three tries and almost four, suggested very strongly otherwise.
“We’re not focused on results,” said Cameron Smith. “We’re focused on performances.”
Wayne Bennett didn’t think his side was playing well enough to win on Saturday. “Probably not … but we’ll go to the game anyway”.
Two separate issues then: is this a good final for rugby league? Undoubtedly, yes. England is the richest country that plays our game at the highest level. The match will attract a large TV audience, engage the national media in the UK and if the underdogs win, potentially bring in sponsorship, support and recognition.
This is where the glass-half-empty scenario comes in.
If these are the reasons an Australia-England final is a good thing, then we must accept that successful teams from tiny Pacific countries can be bad.
We’ve opened up a whole new market for the sport in New Zealand; tens of thousands of members of the Pacific diaspora who – if their reactions to decisions by the officials and players at the ground on Saturday are anything to go by – are new to the sport.
It is like the birth of State Of Origin.
But 37 years into Origin, we are decrying the parochialism and limitations of that series.
So on one hand we have uncovered a new demographic for our sport in New Zealand, which is a first-world, developed country.
On the other, the status of the Kiwis has shrunk immeasurably. As someone with an intimate knowledge of the business of international rugby league said to me on Sunday, how many would have got to Wembley for England-Tonga and Australia Fiji this year?
You’d have to say fewer than 67,545 who went in 2013. New Zealand has a “rugby” draw for people who know nothing about league.
Canada weren’t promoted to the Women’s World Cup without having to qualify for nothing (while the Pacific qualifying tournament was so unfair four countries boycotted it). The RLIF has a stated aim of targeting G20 countries and Tonga and Fiji are not G20 countries.
There’s a way the chasm between the objective and the way things are working out to be filled. Andrew Fifita gave us a clue when he said “I’ve got relatives in Alaska who are going nuts”
We can use the Fiji team to break America, not the US team. We can use the Lebanon team to retake France, not the French team. If Tonga can play a home game in Auckland, why not Fiji in San Francisco?
There is a concept administrators use for world championship-style events – “matching foreign teams to communities”. The Bati did it in Rochdale.
What if we didn’t wait for tournaments? What if we deliberately marketed the national teams of countries with limited commercial resources to those from that country who moved elsewhere?
The people moved from third and second world to first. Let’s make a team out of them and use it as a bulwark; ride the back of economic migration.
After filing until 10.30pm at Mt Smart, I finally made it into town to meet up with my wife who had flown in from London that day. We’d not seen each other in two months.
As another car drove up ‘K’ Road brandishing a Tongan flag, she said: “I looked at the flag and though it was Swiss. Never known Swiss to be so raucous…..
“Why are they celebrating a loss?”
But the World Cup was not a loss for Tongans around the world – even in Alaska. It was a coming of age, it was about identity. Our sport gave it to them.
The next day I was involved in Sky TV’s World Cup coverage. Sitting next to Richie Barnett and Te Arahi Maipi in a largely deserted studio, there was a strange sound off in the darkness.
It was a crew member. Snoring.
“Tongan fan,” said 12-Test Kiwi Barnett. “Big night last night.”