Au revoir Brisbane, we’ll be back, hopefully as part of the Wall of White

Three days in Brisbane have come to a close with Australia safely through to next week’s World Cup final. This evening’s semi-final against Fiji went the way I expected. Like the previous two World Cup semi-finals when the Kangaroos have faced Fiji, the Aussies have progressed without much discomfort. The difference this time, was that Fiji scored, going 2-0 up in the first few minutes and scoring a try in the second half of their 54-6 defeat.

Mrs Davies and I did the best we could to show support for the Fijians, but there was to be no denying the Aussies tonight.

I was hoping for a closer game, but unfortunately the Aussies were as efficient as ever and punished the Fijians seemingly for every error they made. I find it difficult to get into watching the Kangaroos at times. Today was efficient, rather than exciting. You can’t fail to be impressed by how technically good they are, but there isn’t a great deal of ‘wow’ about them, except in the latter stages of games when they have already got the win, and they just rip through a tired and defeated opposition. Still ‘winners are grinners’ and if England win the World Cup, I’d not care how it was achieved.

During our few days in this wonderful city we took a trip down the River Brisbane in the afternoon sun, saw the Fijian team at the city beach and had a trip to the theatre to get a bit of culture. We saw Scenes from a marriage. It’s a great play that no doubt acts as a pick me up for every married couple who sees it. Any stresses or strains in your own relationship would seem totally trivial in comparison to the couple at the centre of this play. Boy have they got problems!

We’re now at Brisbane airport waiting for a flight to Auckland and Saturday’s semi-final between Tonga and England. Whilst today’s semi-final in Brisbane attracted 22,000 to watch the Aussies, the match in Auckland is already a 30,000 sell-out. The atmosphere will be amazing, and I’m sure that despite being heavily outnumbered, us England fans will do our best to cheer the boys on.

The side is settled, assuming Kev Brown has come through his concussion tests ok, and they know that this is our moment to reach the final for the first time since 1995. I must have seen about 50 World Cup matches, including three finals, but I’ve never seen England play in one. Simply reaching the final would be a huge step forward, but I must confess that even if we lose later today, the fact that it’ll not be an Aussie v Kiwi final would be some comfort.

So just three and a half more hours in this deserted airport before our flight departs for Auckland, where later today 17 Englishmen will face the biggest moment in their rugby league careers. Dare we dream? Can England really make it to the World Cup final?


RLWC2017 – a defining moment in history or just another good few weeks?

Tonga’s victory over New Zealand in the third match of their group and to a lesser extent Fiji’s victory over the Kiwis a week later in the quarter-finals will go down in rugby league history as momentous games. Professor Tony Collins once said that rugby league has never failed to miss an opportunity, and it will be fascinating to see if we miss this one too.

For the first time in our game’s glorious history, we have seen tier two nations defeat a tier one nation in a major tournament. Tonga are a real threat. They have managed to mobilise a huge army of fans in New Zealand, to not only get out on the streets and celebrate their team’s success, but also to pack stadia and create a sea of red to roar on the Mate Ma’a. They go into Saturday’s semi-final against England as favourites in many people’s eyes.

The international game for decades revolved around Australia. England and Great Britain have wanted to play them, but we’ve not been good enough and often the Aussies couldn’t see the value in playing. That resulted in us trying to play the Kiwis instead and the success of their players in the NRL has meant they have been able to provide competitive opposition for England. Crowds have risen alongside the prestige of an England v New Zealand fixture. It’s no longer the Kangaroos or nothing in the eyes of the English public. Both touring sides now attract similar crowds in England. The RFL have just announced that when the Kiwis tour England in 2018, the tests will be played in Hull, Elland Road in Leeds and at Anfield, Liverpool. Fill those stadia and we’re talking big occasions. Now we’ve got some new kids on the block too.

Tonga and to a lesser extent Samoa against each other, or against the Kiwis or England in New Zealand would draw big crowds and generate some much needed income for those nations from a new audience. I’m sure Tonga would also draw a good crowd if they played in England. The only previous time England played Tonga was in 2006, when just 3,000 of us saw a rather feisty spectacle at Widnes.

My review of Tonga’s 2013 campaign and future predictions were fortunately only partially correct.

As an internationalist, I sincerely hope that rugby league doesn’t miss yet another golden opportunity to grow the game. Maybe this time we will seize it and finally create an international game worthy of this magnificent sport. Either way, I’ll still be there banging the drum for international competition and dreaming of that magic moment when England finally triumph.

From Perth to Brisbane, via Darwin and Melbourne

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.

Sozzled after an all night bender

So the next set of matches in the World Cup is about to start. England have the luxury of knowing that anything but a very heavy defeat will see them through to the quarter finals. Wales are out and Ireland need to beat the Welsh in Perth and hope for a very, very unlikely defeat for PNG against the USA, who are a mere shadow of the team that won our hearts in 2013. The big match of the weekend is between Tonga and New Zealand. Despite the players who have opted to play for Tonga over New Zealand and Australia, you’d have to still put this side behind the Kiwis. It would be quite a shock if Tonga did win, and actually top the group. They’ve certainly moved ahead of Samoa as the leading challenge from the Pacific Island nations though.

Samoa should move safely through to the quarter-finals, even though they have a do or die game against Scotland. Winner qualifies, loser goes home. However three of the Scotland players have already gone home, as they were too drunk to board a plane in Christchurch after their defeat last weekend. Captain Danny Brough, their one true superstar, the appropriately named Johnny Walker, and a third bloke no one will ever recall were described by Scotland’s Daily Record as being so “sozzled after all night bender” that they couldn’t get on the plane to their next game. How drunk do you have to be for the stewardesses to decide you’re too far gone to travel? 

So that’s Scotland done for. They did look way off the pace in their other two group games, but they have been know to battle it out in some memorable games. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to wear my Scotland rugby league wristband again. It’ll no doubt go in my momento box, never to be seen again.

It’s not just the Scots getting drunk. Obviously there were the Italians fighting, with James Tedesco chatting up team mate Shannon Wakeman’s signorina. Fair play, she’s not a bad looking lass. But there’s also been the French getting in on the bad boy act.

Eloi Pellisier, the French hooker, has been sent home for breaking a curfew. He’s no stranger to being disciplined is Eloi, but there does seem to be something about players going out on the pop after heavy defeats. France may well end this World Cup with three matches, three defeats, but they haven’t been that bad, they’ve just been in a tough group. 

Below the tier one nations (England, Australia and New Zealand), we’ve seen a definite shift in power to the Southern Hemisphere. Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France are all likely to fail to make the quarter finals, and so will have to qualify for the next tournament in England in 2021. That should at least provide some fascinating qualifiers.

The next round kicks off on Friday evening in Canberra, where Italy will try and stop the wonderful, free flowing rugby from the Fijians, but it is unlikely to prevent Fiji from topping the group. I’ll watch that from Perth, a couple of thousand miles from Townsville where I’ve enjoyed the wonderful sunshine, the runs along the Strand and up Castle Hill and the opportunity to cool off mid run by a swim in the ocean.

When we visited Townsville in 2008, we really only saw the stadium, when England nearly lost to PNG and the hotel complex on the outskirts of town. This time I’ve had time to explore and get to meet some wonderful people. Even met a couple of lasses from Wakefield this morning, out here topping up their tans before going home in a fortnight to begin their careers in the NHS. Maybe one of them could even have a look at my shoulder if the problem ever returns!

The millionaire, Olympic gold and chief of the Cowboys

Once again, with the weekend over, so is the rugby. Bizarre scheduling means seven games in three days, then no games for four days. So I was left to my own devices in this far off land. With daylight streaming through the open window, I was wide awake at 5:30am and ready for breakfast. Except the kitchen didn’t open until 6am. I joined the 6am rush and had a hearty breakfast, before setting out for a five mile run along the Strands. Very warm, but beautiful. I found a route that I would repeat for the next three mornings. Doing my best to keep the worst ravages of too much beer and curry off my waistline. We’ll no doubt see the impact of all that when I waddle through security at Manchester in December.

Townsville is a city of wide roads, as wide as a motorway, but very few cars. It has a population of 160,000 but spread out over so many suburbs, that the city feels empty. I walked the Main Street, which had housed a street market yesterday and eventually headed for the Cowboys Leagues Club for lunch. Always phased by too much choice, I finally made a decision and went to order, only to discover that the menu I’d been studying was no longer in use. Aargh! I’ll have a pizza then. Pizza and beer later, I headed back on to the mean streets of Townsville and eventually bumped into Paul from Sheffield. He’d made better use of his time, by visiting the aquarium and was now heading out for a beer. I joined him.

We made our way to Molly Malones, a bar Paul had found the day before, that served real pints for $6. That’s quite a bargain. Most places are $7.50 for a schooner. As we entered the bar, we were greeted by a cheery local, who insisted on buying us both a pint. We settled down to accept the hospitality, and one beer led to another, with our host repeatedly imploring the waitress to pour us another couple of pints, every time we got near to finishing one.

He was quite a colourful character, and not the sort of bloke you could allow on the telly before the watershed. He was good value though, especially as we weren’t paying. He even prints his own money!

When Garry finally left (his phone rang to confirm the chicken was ready at his penthouse suite, just round the corner), we had another couple of pints before heading off. We’d made plans though to go to Magentic Island the next day. It’s one of those things that seemingly every tourist to Townsville does.

After my morning run I headed back down to the ferry terminal and met Paul. Twenty minutes later, we were arriving at the Island. Spectacularly beautiful doesn’t do it justice. We purchased a day ticket for the bus, and visited a number of the bay’s on the island. 

At Horseshoe Bay, we treated ourselves to hoki and chips, which was just sublime, washed down with a schooner of ice cold beer. Then into the sea for a swim. You don’t get that bracing moment you do when venturing into the sea at home. This was like stepping into a lukewarm bath. I’d not brought a towel or any swimmers but was pretty sure the sun would soon dry me off. I was right.

This being the first Tuesday in November, it was Melbourne Cup day. The ‘race that stops a nation’. We headed to one of the other bays, where there was a big hotel and Cup buffet going on to watch the big race. An outsider at 17/1 was the winner. They’d be some happy punters today. We then got the 3pm ferry back to the mainland, happy but tired. All this sunshine, swimming and beer, really takes it out of you!

In the evening, Steve Mascord was holding the Townsville launch of his book. I went along and as guests arrived, Steve introduced me, usually by saying “This isn’t Richard”, which is what he repeatedly introduced me as in Cairns, until I pointed out my name was Brian. Then one guy came in and after greeting him, Steve introduced him to me. “Paul, this is Brian”. “High Paul, nice to meet you”, I replied before settling down to listen as the conversation flowed, thinking that Paul looked vaguely familiar. It then dawned on me, that it was Paul Green, coach of the North Queensland Cowboys.

It was fascinating debating the merits of the NRL, State of Origin and international footy, with one of the top coaches in the Australian game. We were later joined by another fellow, who’d obviously been enjoying his Melbourne Cup luncheon, as he was very forthright in his views. He turned out to be Jon Sieben, who won gold in the butterfly at the 1984 Olympics.

I’ve sure met some interesting folk on this trip so far, and we’re only two England games in. Today, I move on to Perth via Brisbane, where Etihad Airways permitting, Mrs Davies will be waiting for me. 

Townsville – It ain’t half hot mum

After Sydney, it was on to Townsville. I had breakfast in Starbucks on George in Sydney, which was a convenient way to keep out of the drizzling rain before I headed for the train to the airport. The train took no time and I arrived an hour before my flight, which is when check-in opened. There were an awful lot of people trying to check-in for Virgin Australia flights, and it soon became apparent that there was no way I was going to get through in time. Fortunately they called my flight out, and fast tracked us through check-in and on to security. I was soon sat on the plane, next to an elderly Fijian fellow who seems to be related to everyone in Fiji from the President to Jarrod Hayne. He’d got some tales had that bloke, so the two and a half hour flight simply, erm, flew by.

It was on arrival at Townsville that I realised the email I’d got from my hostel about buses and pick ups, was not to and from the airport, rather to and from the bus station and ferry, so I wasn’t right sure where I was going, or how I was going to get there. Fortunately, I spied Steve Mascord getting off the plane, and asked him if he fancied sharing a taxi. Better than that, he had got a hire car, and could drop me at my digs. Nigel Wood was also on my flight, looking every bit the Englishman abroad. Suit, sun hat and trainers. A suit in this weather? Wow! I was feeling hot in just my shorts and tee shirt. Nigel, as chairman of the International Federation was on official duty, and on his way to Papua New Guinea the next day for what turned out to be the match of the tournament so far, Ireland’s narrow defeat to PNG.

Steve however was staying in Townsville and had come to Townsville, to cover an NRL game almost every other Saturday for about ten years, so he knew where I was staying, having stayed there himself in the past. “You’ll not get any sleep there”, he warned. “It’s like what visiting the tropics was like in the the 1950s there too.” He wasn’t wrong! There’s a Butlins type feel to the place, only with those big ceiling fans you see in films about British rule in India.

I got myself checked-in and then headed to town where I bumped into three lads in from Fiji for the big match. They showed me a leaflet they had that was advertising a special shuttle bus the Cowboys were putting on from their Leagues Club to the game. That would do me. It was $12 return. Steve had advised that a taxi was about $28!

My ticket was for access to the grass banking at one end. Families were spread out on picnic blankets, umbrellas to provide shade, and it had a very relaxing feel. 

For the first game, I was sat with a bunch of Aussies who were cheering on Italy. They got a great deal of pleasure out of teasing James Tedescu everytime he came to stand near our end by singing “Heey, Ey Teddy. Ooh, Ah. I wanna know ow ow, if you’d steal my girl”. He was joining in the fun, until Shannon Wakeman, whose girl Teddy had indeed been trying to pull in Cairns, was brought on and stood next to him for the restart after each try! Italy were too good for the US and their convincing win put them back in the tournament. The Americans have several players who play in the US competition, so this can only be good experience for them for the future.

Next up after the Italians, came the Fijians and Wales. As the Italian fans made their way to the bar, a lad in a GB hat came and sat nearby. Turns out, he’s called Paul, supports St Helens (we all have a cross to bear) and lives in Sheffield (some have two)! So I spent a couple of enjoyable hours, as the sun went down, both over the stadium and on Wales’ World Cup hopes, chatting to Paul. He’d had a similar journey to me around Oz and was continuing on to Perth and Melbourne, but heading home before our inevitable victories in the semi-final and final. I can but dream!

After the game, I headed for the bus and got chatting to an old Aussie, who was down from Brisbane. He’d been to the UK in 2013 for the last World Cup, and was clearly intending to see as much of this one as he could. It’s like a breathe of fresh air, every time I meet an Aussie who is passionate about the international game, and not simply the NRL. Unfortunately though, there aren’t many of them.

So back to Butlins and the 1950s. I think my room mates had taken it a bit too literally. It was about 10pm and they were all in bed! Shouldn’t they be out doing drugs in night clubs and sinking shots? Anyway, least I was likely to get a decent night’s sleep. Which I did. All seven and a half hours of it. 1950s hell hole or not, it was the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.

Lebanon get the plaudits, but England get the win

Hmm! Victory over Lebanon in Sydney was secured, but this World Cup is starting to have a familiar feel to it. We often start tournaments with a glorious defeat to Australia, with lots of optimism about how we’ll get better as the tournament progresses, then we back it up with an unspectacular victory over one of the smaller nations in the comp. The Aussies usually start with the standard win against England, then follow that up by putting 50pts on a smaller nation. So It was again.

England played well in the first half. Dealt with a spirited Lebanese side, but then failed to push on in the second half, and it ended up with us being grateful for the final hooter to avoid further glory for the Cedars. It was in stark contrast with the Kangaroos’ destruction of France yesterday.

I started the arvo’s footie in the Shakey in Surrey Hills (or, I began watching the afternoon’s rugby league in the Shakespeare Hotel in Surrey Hills). First up was New Zealand v Scotland in Hamilton. Friends of ours are out there visiting family and were at the game. Scotland, once again, were outplayed in this World Cup, and you’d have to imagine that they will plummet down the world rankings as a result. They have a limited playing pool, and are without five or six first team choices. However, they could still qualify for the quarter-finals, but they need to defeat Samoa in Cairns next week in a do or die match for both sides. That seems unlikely, unless Danny McBrough plays a blinder.

Following that match, my Aussie mate Paul rocked up. He’d brought his family down from the Gold Coast to Sydney to spend some time with family and so he could take in the rugby. Having excused himself from a family get together he headed over to the Shakey to meet me. We were also joined by six Wigan fans, who plan to now drive from Sydney to Perth for England’s next game. That doesn’t sound like fun to me! There was also a lad from Barrow, one from Hull and even a Salford fan. That’s two I’ve seen now.

The next game was Tonga v Samoa. There had been great scenes at the airport as Tonga flew into New Zealand, but there had unfortunately been some unsavoury scenes too, as some idiot burned a Samoan flag in the week, and there had been reports of some fighting.

Prior to the game, the two sides joined each other in prayer, before doing their war dances. Then the action. It was a wonderful game, played out before a full stadium, with everyone seemingly dressed in red or blue. Ultimately it was those in red who were happiest as Tonga secured victory and set up a mouth watering game against New Zealand next week, where the winners will top the group.

So then onto the Sydney Football Stadium for the big one. It’s a nice stadium, but not really suited for today’s wet weather. The majority of the crowd moved to the back few rows which were undercover. It was there that I bumped into Jason, a mate from back home, and we enjoyed the banter with the Lebanon fans sat nearby. They are certainly passionate, and seemed to enjoy the journey home, flags flying from car windows, and horns sounding, despite defeat to England.

Barring a disaster for England against France in Perth next Saturday, Lebanon’s narrow victory over the French last week, should see them progress to the quarter-finals alongside England and Australia. England though will need to step up considerably next week, if this tournament isn’t to end as they usually do, at the semi-final stage.