By the time this tournament is over, there are only 3 teams that I won’t have had the joy of watching live, Papua New Guinea, Wales and France.
The teams that have made the biggest impression on me though are from the so called “emerging” nations of Tonga, USA and Italy. All three of these teams arrived on these shores with no illusion that they would make it to the final at Old Trafford, but each set of players, coaches and administrators was determined to make certain that they did all they could to show that rugby league is not limited to just the big nations, but is a gospel being spread far and wide.
To see Charles Tonga in his national dress at every chance, or Carlo Neopolitano praising the virtues of rugby league in Italy or the amazing passion of the Tomahawks and their fans was truly inspiring. I’ll never forget the sight of Charles bearing down on a group of us at the press launch, asking if anyone had seen his iPhone! I nearly offered to just give him my phone, he has that sort of presence about him. A man so large, he barely fits his circumstances… (Apologies to fans of Level 42)
I was lucky to get to most of the post-match press conferences and to say that the players and (most of) the coaches from the teams have been open and honest with the press is an understatement. Not only with the press, but also in the communities that they have been a part of during their sojourn to the UK. We all had a good moan at a certain coach, but eventually, we began to realise he wasn’t important as long as he delivered a winning team on the pitch.
It’s not just been those teams I mentioned either. Most of them have really taken to the local surroundings and have made visits to schools and local clubs in an effort not only to promote the tournament, but to make certain that there is a lasting legacy from their time here. Take the ½ time sight in the last quarter final of over 100 kids from Warrington doing a traditional Samoan war dance. OK, it didn’t help the team, but to see so many kids inspired was great to see in these times when it’s seen as cool to write them off as the PlayStation generation who do nothing but sit at computers all evening.
Our children are the future, not only of the game, but of its administration as well. Not everyone is blessed with the athletic ability of Sonny Bill, or the sidestep of Sam Tomkins, but those who are more inclined towards making the game better at any level should also be nurtured and helped. Look at the amazing job of inspiring people the late Steve Prescott did, or the work that former player Jimmy Gittins is doing with State Of Mind and you can see that this sport is not just the teams and clubs we all go and see week in and week out, but those unsung heroes who turn up on a wet and cold Sunday to coach an under 9 team on the local school field, or someone like stadium announcer and event manager Pete Nuttall who wanted to give back to the game that’s paid his wages and founded the Milton Keynes Wolves. Hardly a hotbed of the game, but the club is growing year on year.
At every game there has been a group of children from the local area singing and dancing both ahead of kick off and during the interval. If those kids are inspired to go on and pursue their dreams, whatever they may be, this will have been a successful tournament.
Too all those naysayers who were rubbishing this as a tin pot tournament not worth watching ahead of October’s kick off in Cardiff, You have been proved mightily wrong. Not only has it been the best attended, but also the most watched on TV. It has spread the gospel of rugby league to the South West in Bristol and reignited the passion for a Super League spot in Cumbria.
Yes, I love this sport, and I’m proud to not only have been a part of this event but also to have written about it for others to enjoy, something I hope to do for many years to come…