Twenty seconds

Date: 23 November 2013. Location: Wembley Stadium. Occasion: England v New Zealand, World Cup Semi-final. Outcome: Broken heart.

The bare fact is that New Zealand scored a converted try with 20 seconds of the semi-final to go, and as a consequence, won the match 20-18. The bare facts though, don’t quite capture how I was feeling at Wembley.

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t understand when people tried to cheer me up by claiming “It’s only a game”, when my team lost in a crucial match. It didn’t feel like “just a game”. I can vividly remember sitting at the dining room table, tears pouring down my face, as the radio commentator described how my team had lost in the cup replay. There was little my mum or brothers could say to console me, and the next day at school was grim.

I’m older and wiser now, and I appreciate that there are worse things in life than your side losing, but as Shaun Johnson stepped England skipper Kevin Sinfield and dived over the try line to draw the Kiwis level, with an easy kick to come, it felt as though the bottom had dropped out of my world.

With previous defeats, frustration and anger have taken hold, as I have sought out someone to blame for my disappointment. It might be the ref, a player, the coach, someone, anyone that I could point to and blame for the result not going my way. But at Wembley it was different. I didn’t feel anger. I was simply numb.

England had given their all. They had played brilliantly and led for much of the match, but at the end it just wasn’t quite enough to get the win. I simply stared at the pitch as Johnson went over.

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The four Kiwi fans in the row in front jumped up and down in celebration, but their actions were just a blur. All I could see was the green grass of the Wembley pitch. It had all gone wrong. Yet again, we were not going to get the victory. I’ve never seen England win anything worth winning, and that would continue.

Mrs Davies and the girls didn’t say anything. They knew better than that. My eldest said afterwards that she was in tears as the hooter sounded, but I didn’t notice. I was in my own little world. I’d tried to manage my own expectations in the lead up to the semi-final, but as the match was unfolding, it was going our way. We were getting stronger as the match was coming to a close and the final was almost in touching distance, so to lose in such circumstances was a bitter, bitter blow to take.

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After our match, there was the other semi-final. Australia gave Fiji a real beating. I was there, but I can’t honestly remember anything about the game, even though we stayed to the very end. No matter how cold it was getting, or how much I wasn’t enjoying it, we don’t leave before the hooter goes. It’s simply the way it is.

Gradually the numbness subsided and was replaced with various, truly negative feelings, but I fought hard to banish the “what ifs” from my mind. I know that is a sure fire recipe for prolonging the misery.

The train journey back to Wakefield was quiet and long. The station in Wakefield was shut, so we had to go to Leeds and then get a bus back to Wakey. When we finally got home, the fact my doner kebab supper was smothered in a raita sauce, rather than garlic mayo didn’t exactly contribute to lifting my mood either. As is my custom after a big match, I sat down to watch it again on TV. I watched the first half, between scrapping the sickly sauce off my kebab, but couldn’t face the second half. I went to bed.

Throughout Sunday, the second half sat there on my Sky box, constantly calling out to me. I knew I had to watch it, if I was to ever complete the healing process. I did, and even leapt out of my chair as Kallum Watkins went over for his try, forgetting for a moment, that I knew how this one was going to end. The last two minutes was painful, but watchable. I knew what was coming, even if I was hoping that maybe, we’d kick for touch, rather than keeping the ball in play, maybe George wouldn’t tackle high, or maybe Sir Kev wouldn’t opt to close Shaun Johnson down, and the Kiwi attack might fizzle out.

I watched it. I’ve accepted it.

Fortunately I was working at home on Monday, and didn’t really need to talk to many people, so I was left to my own thoughts and was coming to terms with the loss. By Monday night, I’d adjusted enough that I was checking out the cost of flights to Sydney. Word has it that the next big tournament will be a 4Nations in New Zealand and Australia next autumn. Maybe that will be the one, when England get their hands on a major trophy.

It’ll happen one day, it’ll probably be in my lifetime and I intend to be there when it does.

Dare I dream of glory for England?

It’s been a strange week so far. After the high of the quarter-finals weekend, it was back to work on Monday with no rugby until Saturday. There was a bit of catching up to do. A couple of BBC podcasts I hadn’t had time to listen to and the league papers come out on Monday too. This week they included the fixtures for the new Super League season that starts in February.

At work there were the inevitable questions about the weekend. How did the rugby go? When are the next games? How will England get on against the Kiwis?

It all seems a bit strange that in just over a week, it will all be over. I’ll have seen the 24 games I was planning to see. I’ll have done my travels, and spent a fortune in the process. And England? Well, we’ll probably be back where we started. Miles away from being champions of the world and the wait for the coveted prize will continue for at least four more years.

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I’ve been telling people that the match against the Kiwis is a really difficult one. Normally losing to New Zealand in the semis would be seen as failure, but this time round, there’s not much between them and the Aussies. It would be no surprise, unlike in 2008, if the Kiwis were once again crowned world champions, I’ve been telling people.

But is that true? Am I managing my own expectations? Preparing for the inevitable disappointment that I’ve become so familiar with, as an England fan?

I would dearly love England to win the World Cup. But dare I dream? Can Sam Tomkins produce some magic? Can the Burgess boys and James Graham dominate for England, like they do for their club sides in Australia each week? Can James Roby constantly keep the opposition going backwards with great play from dummy-half? Can Kevin Sinfield give one of those flawless ‘Sir Kev’ performances that he seems to always produce for Leeds when it really matters, and can Rangi Chase produce one of his magical performances that bamboozle the best of defences?

Rangi Chase? Shock, horror. On Thursday, Steve Mac produced one of the biggest surprises of the World Cup. Rangi Chase has been dropped, and Gareth Widdop has been selected instead.

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I’ve got to admit that my mood lifted on Thursday at that news. I don’t know why, I’ve no problem with Chase. Not his greatest fan, never really seen it myself, but I’m not looking at Widdop as the saviour either. Sure he is in a key position for Melbourne Storm, maybe the best team in the World, but he is clearly the Ringo Starr of the Storm’s Fab Four of Smith, Slater, Cronk and Widdop.

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I think that it is simply the change. England have been good in their matches to date. Not great, but ok. They will need to be much, much better on Saturday. They will be, as they are playing the Kiwis, but this change with Widdop, could be just the catalyst we need to ensure that increased intensity, that more precise execution of skill, and that greater desperation to leave nothing “in the locker” as they say.

I am in a no-man’s land of not daring to dream for fear of failure though.

How I wish I could recapture the innocent optimism of my youth, when I felt my team could win any game against any opposition. They never did mind, so I guess years and years of disappointment has impacted on my optimism. I’ve seen Wakey avoid seemingly certain relegation on more than one occasion, which was great, but I’ve never seen my team win the big prize. ‘Success’ has always meant avoiding complete failure.

I remember the crushing disappointment of the 2004 Tri-Nations final at Elland Road, when the Aussies put in a flawless first half performance and led 38-0 at half-time. That was a match we thought we were going to win. It was like watching a car crash unfold in front of my eyes and being helpless to do anything about it.

There have been others too. There was 2009, when we ran out of steam after 60 minutes and 2011, when we just never had enough to stop Darren Lockyer in his final performance as captain of Australia.

If we did actually win on Saturday, I’d probably spend all next week preparing myself for yet another defeat by the Aussies in the final. “Might as well have lost to the Kiwis, rather than lose in the chuffin’ final again.” That sort of thing.

However, I’m happy to deal with that problem when it happens. Just give us this win. This Saturday, against the Kiwis. I’ve done the hard yards. I’ve never had so much as a sniff of glory with England. I’ve certainly never had it with Wakey at the top level. In fact I’ve had a pretty rubbish experience of being a rugby league fan really.

In a few hours time, I will either be experiencing one of the greatest ever highs of my rugby league days, or I shall be plunged back into the pits of despair. Why do we put ourselves through this?

But come on, just this once. Pleeeeease!

Samoa – could be the start of something special

Samoa bowed out of the World Cup following defeat to the Fiji Bati in the quarter-final at Warrington and became the tenth team to exit the World Cup.

My World Cup experience
I saw their first match at Warrington against the Kiwis on TV, as I’d gone to watch France play PNG in Hull instead. In years to come, I shall try not to become one of the 40 or 50,000 people who claims “I was there”, as the game will no doubt take on mythical qualities as time passes.

I first saw Samoa on my next trip to Craven Park for their victory over PNG and then took the train to Perpignan to watch them bash the French to claim second spot in the group and a match up with Fiji in the quarters. They quite enjoyed that win in France!

What we got, compared to what was expected
They were a huge let down in 2008, losing to Ireland at Parramatta. This time they came with Government funding and a threat to not disappoint, and then they got 50 points put on them by England’s second string! It wasn’t looking good.

But then the comp started properly. Their come back from 22-0 down to the Kiwis showed great effort in the face of tough opposition and won them many admirers. Their foul play in France however, lost them quite a few, and they will be disappointed in how they failed to rise to the occasion in the quarter-final. However a place in the quarter-finals should keep the folks back home happy.

Memories that will live with me
The atmosphere of the game again the Kiwis was captured brilliantly on TV and the commentary of Andrew Voss was a pure pleasure. The period when they scored try after try was quite sensational.

Memories I’ll try and forget
Four players on report and three dirty attacks on the French half-back once the ball had gone were not tactics worthy of a side like Samoa.

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What should happen between now and 2017
They should take part in regular internationals against the other Pacific Nations and be involved in a play-off for the next 4Nations Down Under, in an attempt to encourage Samoan youngsters to pick Samoa ahead of New Zealand.

What I reckon will happen between now and 2017
They’ll probably get one-off matches against Tonga. Their best players will continue to choose the Kiwis and then we’ll expect them to magically pick up from where they left off at the 2017 World Cup.

If Samoa were a girlfriend
She’s a big girl and no mistake. Mess her about and you’re likely to get a clout, but she’s got a gentle side too. If you give her the attention she deserves, then this could turn into something special.

France – au revoir ma cherie

France finished the World Cup with a narrow victory over Papua New Guinea, thanks to a David Mead missed penalty, and defeats to New Zealand, Samoa and England.

My World Cup experience
Two trips to France in my very own trains, planes and automobiles adventure will stay with me for a lifetime. I have never been so tired as I was on that midnight drive from Avignon to Lyon to get the train back to meet my flight from Paris. Before the foreign adventure, I was one of what seemed like only two France fans in the crowd at Hull KR on the first night against Papua New Guinea. The other being my daughter, Theo Fages’ latest fan, and I was in the South Stand at Wigan, as the French made their exit against England in the quarter-finals.

What we got, compared to what was expected
It doesn’t sound much, three defeats and a narrow win, but France were much more competitive than in 2008 when John Monie saw France finish rock bottom. Two sell out crowds, and some spirited displays restored pride in the France shirt. The climb back up from the low of the Bobby Goulding era has begun.

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Memories that will live with me
The sell-out crowd in Avignon that sang their hearts out despite a 48-0 drubbing from the Kiwis was just one of those moments that restored your faith in human kind. Here was a group of fans who rather than moan about their own team’s deficiencies were able to fully appreciate the class of the opposition. Both teams left the field to much applause.

Memories I’ll try and forget
The hour and a half I spent driving round and round Lyon’s one way system in the middle of the night looking for a petrol station and my parking space.

What should happen between now and 2017
Richard Agar should have his contract as French coach extended and Toulouse should be admitted into the Super League to enable France to have a greater playing base to choose from. They should be provided with regular internationals against a variety of nations from both hemispheres.

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What I reckon will happen between now and 2017
The French will somehow contrive to lose Richard Agar and end up with another John Monie or Bobby Goulding type. Toulouse will be rejected by the self interest of a few minor British clubs desperate to cling on to yesteryear.

If France were a girlfriend
Now this one’s got potential. A right little cracker in her younger days, she’s been through a bit of a rough patch, but she’s a stayer. Treat her nice, and you’ll have a lot of happy years together.

Tomahawks certainly did ‘Shock The World’

The USA Tomahawks fell at the hands of the Australians in the quarter-final in Wrexham to end their first ever appearance at the World Cup.

My World Cup experience
I travelled down from Workington to Bristol to see the Tomahawks beat the Cook Islands on a wet Wednesday at the Memorial Ground in front of a large crowd, mostly made up of rugby league virgins. The following Sunday, they beat Wales in Wrexham to send Wales crashing out of the World Cup and I saw them for a third time in Salford, when they led, but ultimately lost. Their final game was back at Wrexham, when they were crushed by the Kangaroos on their relentless march to the semi-finals.

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What we got, compared to what was expected
Big success. No one expected them to get a win, never mind top their group, although their pre-tournament win over France gave a hint of what was to come. Two coaches quit in the build up, splits at home, as the local amateurs railed against their non selection for better players based overseas. The USA should have been a disaster waiting to happen, not the resounding success they turned out to be.

Memories that will live with me
Undoubtedly the Wiggles song of “Shock the World” was one of the most memorable stories of the entire World Cup.

Memories I’ll try and forget
The annoying Warrington fans who sat behind me in Wrexham and continually grunted U-S-A throughout the Wales match to simply annoy the locals.

What should happen between now and 2017
The warring factions in the States should get together and stop bickering and the national team should get a combination of local matches against the likes of Canada, Jamaica and others for their domestic players and matches with their full squad against other nations.

What I reckon will happen between now and 2017
The rugby league world will ignore the US. The locals will continue to fight amongst themselves, and we’ll all feign surprise and disappointment when they fail to repeat the effort in 2017.

If the Tomahawks were a girlfriend
Well she’s full of surprises this one. A fine looking lass, who’ll give you a good time, and can mix it with the big boys with ease. She said she’d shock the world, so don’t be surprised if like some of those girls in Bangkok, underneath she turns out to be not quite what she seems.

Scotland – rugby league’s good-time girl

Scotland were the first team to go out at the quarter-final stage after their defeat to the World Champions, New Zealand at Headingley.

My World Cup experience
I was there on that magical first night in Workington when Scotland overcame Tonga in front of a huge crowd, that set the tone for so much of the  tournament to come. The following week’s draw with Italy at the same venue was viewed on TV after I’d got back from watching Wales in Wrexham. Their third group match was their win at Salford over the US Tomahawks, where I stood with a group of exiled Scots who had a ball. I was in the North Stand at Headingley for their quarter-final defeat to New Zealand, where the biggest roar of the night was saved for Scotland’s solitary try.

What we got, compared to what was expected
Scotland exceeded expectations by winning their group and qualifying for the knock-out stages. Tonga were expected to top the group, and after Italy’s pre-tournament win over England, they quickly moved above Scotland in people’s thoughts too. Scotland were expected to be plucky opponents for the others as they chalked up a couple of wins.

Memories that will live with me
Their reaction when taking the applause of the fans in Workington was something to savour, and their victory over the US meant they had done all they could to qualify. But perhaps, it was the video of the players having a beer and celebrating after watching Tonga beat Italy on the TV to send the Scots through to the quarter-finals.

Memories I’ll try and forget
There are very few, as it was such a great World Cup for Scotland, but I felt that when Danny Brough failed to reach touch from a penalty early in the game against New Zealand, the writing was on the wall that Scotland’s World Cup ride was about to end.

What should happen between now and 2017
Scotland should play in regular internationals against the other home nations and France, and should be the front runners for the fourth spot in the next 4Nations in Europe. The RLIF should provide capacity building funding to allow the Scottish RL to develop the game independently of the RFL.

What I reckon will happen between now and 2017
They will probably get a last minute match against Ireland to be played in front of one man and his dog at Old Anniesland and then be scratching around for players ahead of the 2017 World Cup. Steve McCormack will continue to coach them until he is in his sixties!

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If the Scotland were a girlfriend
Ok, so she doesn’t come from exactly the poshest part of town, but she knows how to enjoy herself. If you’re looking for Saturday nights clubbing, then she’s your girl. She’ll look stunning at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, but don’t be surprised to find her with her head between her knees on the side of the road at 3am. As lovely as she is, she just lacks that little bit of class.

We’re the famous Fiji Bati and we’re going to Wemberlee!

The last quarter-final was Fiji and Samoa in Warrington. It was a 3pm kick-off, which was great. It allowed us a lie in on the Sunday as we’d stopped over in Haydock Park, following England’s victory over France in Wigan, the night before.

With check-out from the hotel required by noon, we were on the road at 11:55am and in Warrington by about half past.

I like Warrington and I’m not afraid to admit it. Kerry Katona, notwithstanding. It’s one of those towns that always makes me wonder what it would have been like at the height of its industrial peak. All those people, working in the same few places, and living very similar lives to their neighbours. Inextricably linked together by working and social patterns. What I also like about Warrington is the fact that it is unashamedly a rugby league town.

The local council know it too, and it’s probably the most impressive show by any local authority of the towns and cities I’ve visited during the World Cup. As well as lots of street signage to confirm their status as a host venue, there was a street exhibition being planned for the day, exploring the industrial links between Warrington and Samoa. I hadn’t placed the two together in my mind’s eye, I must admit, but there you go.

The Council had also used boarded up shop fronts as a place to advertise the forthcoming World Cup.

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What I saw, compared very favourably to reports by locals about the lack of effort shown by neighbours St Helens, although as we went straight to the game, and then straight out again, when we were in St Helens for Australia and Fiji, I’ve no personal observations to pass on.

Having spent a restful hour or so, over a very large coffee in Warrington’s Starbucks, surfing the web to catch up on the pre-match gossip, we finally headed off to the match. I am rather ashamed of the “coffee-house tart”, I’ve become throughout this World Cup, but the offer of free and easy WiFi has been simply too hard to resist, since I got this I-pad.

Fiji v Samoa was going to be a real humdinger.

“Who are the favourites?”, asked Mrs Davies. “Not sure”.
“Who do you want to win?”, again “Not sure?”
“Who will give the Aussies the hardest game?”, once more “Not sure”.

It really was one of those matches. Could have been anything, and not coming from Warrington where the Samoans have been staying, I wasn’t tied to either nation. This was one I could watch in pure neutral mode.

Before the match, we’ve now become accustomed to the various war dances and challenges of the Pacific Island nations. The contrast between the Samoan Siva Tau and the Fijian’s hymn couldn’t have been more striking.

As it happened, Samoa had some crucial injuries early on in the game and despite all the power and size, they just didn’t have that little bit of craft to turn possession into points. Once Fiji went ahead 8-0, there was never a point where you felt that Samoa would win.

It was an enjoyable afternoon though, and did spark up when the Samoans scored with about 20 minutes to go, but it was never edge of the seat stuff, and Fiji ran out worthy winners. They had that little bit extra, that enabled them to put points on the board, when they got close to the Samoa line.

As a result the old man of the World Cup Petero Civoniceva, will be able to round off his playing days by captaining Fiji against Australia in the semi-final of the World Cup at Wembley. That’s not a bad way to end a wonderful career.

At the end of 80 minutes of both teams hammering into each other for all they are worth, Fiji were announced as the winners. There were post-match interviews, relayed to the crowd via the big screen and tannoy, and the usual hugs and back slaps, with loud music booming out of the PA whilst we awaited the traditional lap of honour.

But as we waited, the two teams formed themselves into a circle in the middle of the pitch. The music stopped, and the crowd instinctively fell silent, as we observed the two teams joining together in prayer. It was on a collective “Amen” from the players in the middle, that the crowd burst into applause, and the lap of honour could commence.

There really is something quite special about those moments of the World Cup. Whether you’re religious or not, the World Cup, and the way almost everyone associated with each of the 14 teams has conducted themselves, has been a refreshing change from the “me now” culture that seems to pervade almost every thing we see in modern life.