So we’re on our way to Brisbane for the first semi-final in this fascinating World Cup. The vast majority of the England fans, and there are about 5,000 of us out here, have moved on to Auckland, but those real rugby league tragics amongst us are on to Brisbane first.
Perth was a great experience. Seeing Mrs Davies at the airport to welcome me was a pleasant sight after a couple of weeks on the road alone. Stopping with family for the next few days was also a welcome relief from sharing a room with strangers. The final round of group games was watched in the living room, feet up, and cold beer in hand. I was even allowed to be in charge of the remote, so it felt very homely indeed. The cracker of course was Tonga’s exceptional victory over New Zealand. It was the first time that a tier two nation had beaten a tier one nation in the World Cup, and meant that Tonga would top their group.
The pictures coming back from New Zealand were sensational. The streets were packed with Tongans in their cars celebrating, though we’d had similar sights the day before on the eve of the game. That victory set up a potential semi-final in Auckland between Tonga and England. An opportunity to sample that atmosphere, and England going in, heavily outnumbered would surely be a night to remember.
Of course defeat for the Kiwis moved them into the other half of the draw and guaranteed a new team in the World Cup final. I’ve been to the last three finals and all of them have been Australia v New Zealand with England losing to the Kiwis in one semi and Fiji losing to Australia in the other. This year it will be different.
England’s final group game was against France in Perth, and Uncle Wayne had gone for Gareth Widdop at fullback and Luke Gale and Kev Brown in the halves. It worked a treat and England blew the French away in the first half hour. I met Kev in Sydney when England were out for the Samoa test in May and he was made up to be in the side, and to have Uncle Wayne put so much faith in him, despite a poor season with Warrington. It was great to see him have yet another good game for England in Perth, and it was funny to read all the comments from fans back home, praising his performance, after criticising his selection in the squad just a few weeks ago. As I constantly say on Twitter #TrustWayne!!
So with the group games over, it was on to the knock-out stages and we flew to Darwin for the first quarter-final between Australia and Samoa. Many were critical of the competition format that meant Samoa made it through the group stages despite losing twice and only managing a draw against Scotland, devoid of their inebriated superstar Danny McBrough. The clamour was for Ireland to qualify on the basis of their victories over Italy and Wales, despite their inability to beat Papua New Guinea. To my mind, it didn’t suggest Ireland would be much more of a match for the Kangaroos than the Samoans would be. Nobody though could have predicted such an abject performance from Samoa in Darwin.
The city is known as the Top End, and it was my first visit there. It’s hot. Very hot. We went to their ‘deck chair cinema’ one evening to watch ‘Victoria and Abdul’ and even then, as we gently strolled back to our apartment at half nine in the evening, we were sweating cobs. My t-shirt was clinging to my pecs and washboard stomach by the time we got back to our room. I looked like a bloke from a diet coke advert.
Actual photo of Brian in Darwin (steady ladies)
After Australia’s routine quarter-final victory in front of a capacity crowd in Darwin, we headed straight to the airport for our 1:10am flight to Melbourne. Fair to say that the mid morning temperature that greeted us in the southern state of Victoria was more to our liking than the hot house of Darwin had been.
Saturday in Melbourne was basically spent in the pub watching the two quarter-finals from New Zealand and getting gently stewed. We met up with ‘Townsville Paul’ and he came over to our local, so we could watch the two games back to back over a couple of cold ones. In the first game, Tonga managed to hang on against Lebanon in front of yet another crazy Tongan crowd to book their place in the semi-final. The outcome was expected, but the margin of victory, just two points, was certainly not. Oh but for a couple of video ref decisions and they might have been dancing in the streets of Tripoli and Beirut instead of, well whatever the capital of Tonga is.
After game one, we sat down to watch the Kiwis record a routine victory over Fiji. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the Fijians weren’t working off the same script. They had the audacity to grind out a 4-2 victory against the world’s number two team, and send the Kiwis spiralling out of the World Cup. We were whooping and hollering by now, no doubt helped by several cold beers, only $7.50 a pint for residents, which by Aussie standards was almost giving it away.
We were enjoying ourselves so much, that we decided to make a night of it. Mrs Davies tells me that I had the special bucket of chicken for my tea and that I quite enjoyed it, though to be honest I have no recollection of eating anything. I do however, recall getting up on the dance floor several hours later after Mrs Davies went to bed. In my mind, I remember a flock of girls crowding round me in awe as I strutted my stuff, but ‘Townsville Paul’ reckons I tripped on my flip flops instead and banged my head on the bar. I’m sure my version’s closer to the truth.
How Brian remembers it
How Townsville Paul remembers it
Once the three minor quarter-finals were out of the way, it was time for the big one. England v PNG in the scorching afternoon sun. Uncle Wayne opted to remain with the spine of the team that beat France, but recalled some of the big guns in the pack. It looked like the strongest England team I’ve ever seen, and despite a number of errors, we saw off PNG quite comfortably. I’d predicted a 36-6 victory to Mrs Davies in the pub beforehand. That was the final result. I’m sure I saw a look of wonder in Mrs Davies’ eyes as my prediction came true. What it must be like to be married to such a sage as I.
So now for the semis. Australia v Fiji in Brisbane on Friday and then Tonga v England in Auckland on Saturday. The Brisbane semi is the fourth World Cup in a row those two have faced each other at this stage, but the journey to this year’s outcome was anything but routine. I expect the Aussies to win, but imagine they’ll have to work quite hard for it in the first forty or so. As for us in Auckland, heaven knows. The Aussie media aren’t giving us much chance, but whatever the outcome, it’s bound to be an amazing match. I simply can’t wait.