By STEVE MASCORD
MORE than 24 hours after that amazing World Cup semi-final, I caught a cab across Auckland, from Mt Wellington to Half Moon Bay.
There were still Tongan flags flying from cars … that much, you would have expected had you been in New Zealand on any of the last four weekends. But halfway through my journey there was an astounding sight. On the right, an entire family had moved into its front yard. They were dressed in Tongan colours, the oldest one looked to be in his 70s and the youngest maybe three. And they were waving flags at passing traffic. One could have expected to at least see a barbecue or some other reason for the gathering but there was none. They had no other purpose for being in their front yard but to wave Tongan flags and brandish Tongan jerseys to passers-by. This was a moment the oldest in the household wanted the youngest to remember, the furthest a Tongan side had ever progressed in a major sporting tournament. This was a cultural milestone, the assertion of an identity, part of real folklore – not the kind that passes for folklore in our mass media age. Did anyone stand outside Brisbane houses in July 1980 waving flags, 24 hours after the first State of Origin game? Somehow, I doubt it. This World Cup should be the rock upon which a new World Order for our sport is built. It has to be.
A LOT of people thought the focus on Andrew Fifita’s ‘no try’ was disrespectful to England making their first World Cup final in 22 years. But it was just the strongest angle from an exciting game. It garnered the best quotes – from the Tongan coach – and numerically it decided the result. The previous week, Lebanon’s disallowed try was the strongest angle when they lost to Tonga by the same margin. That was not seen as disrespectful to the Mate Ma’a … well, perhaps it was by some fans. In Australia, unlike in Britain, there is an assumption that most rugby league games have been seen by most readers. There’s no need to explain the basics. The pressure is on reporters to tell people something new over their Corn Flakes the next day. The reaction to a near miss like that was clearly of most interest; whether reporter thought the call was right or wrong is of no importance. Me? I’ve wavered in the days since. The interpretation has clearly changed since Jerome Ropati’s try in the 2008 final. It was so close that if Matt Cecchin had sent it upstairs, I’m convinced Ben Thaler would have gone with the original call on the field. And that would have been ‘no try’. It’s hard to see it being awarded. In the end, I’m OK with the call.
WE’VE talked about what has been good so far, what we’d add next time. What would we cut?
It seems to me that it’s vitally important the RLIF goes through with plans to play the 2025 tournament in North America. We simply can’t go back to Australia. The government funding secured in the early days will ensure a profit but the crowds at many venues have been poor. South-east Queensland is the one pocket of Australia that has supported international rugby league at the end of the NRL season and the 22,000 who saw the semi-final at Suncorp Stadium last Friday was only fair. Fair to poor has summed up attendances in most other places in Australia, while New Zealand and Papua New Guinea reported multiple sell-outs. Even though Tonga and Fiji have opened up new markets for us, the tournament has also highlighted the importance of administrators opening up more with intelligent planning. Developed countries still represent a hit-and-miss proposition for the international game with perhaps on England capable of a reliable pull. Melbourne v Leeds looks like drawing a bigger crowd to AAMI Park than Australia-England; international rugby league is a very limited draw almost everywhere in Oz.