Prior to my visit to Wembley this past weekend, I’d only ever watched one league game and that was at a bar in New Zealand some two years ago. So while I’m certainly no league fan, I jumped at the chance to watch the semi-finals of a world cup, albeit a world cup where realistically only three teams could win it.
Given that league is not the country’s number one or two sport, and also that it’s more popular in the north of the country, Wembley was around 75% full. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was brilliant and as always, the anthems were very special: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hunii5isI9Q
The atmosphere only intensified as England came out firing and really took it to the Kiwis to storm to a 8 – 0 lead (tries are worth four points, conversions and penalties worth two). NZ fought back through some incredible back-line play and it was all tied up at half-time. It was a riveting 40 minutes of sport and avid league fans next to us commented it was one of the best halves they’d seen.
The physicality was bone-jarring and action so intense that you didn’t want to head to the bar or make a dash to the bathroom. The action continued into the second half as the hosts continued to play phenomenal rugby and leading by four with just minutes to go, it seemed a huge upset was on the cards. NZ, though, refused to stop believing and with seconds left, they went over for the equalising try. The final kick of the game saw them edge ahead 20 – 18 to record a famous win and leave the English players, and the majority of the 65,000 people in the stadium, distraught.
League is very different to union in many respects, the largest difference being the limited possessions with teams limited to a maximum of six tackles to progress up the field before possession is changed over. I noticed firstly that the tackling is very different: in union players go low whereas in league you want to wrap the ball up so tackles are made around the chest. Off-loading is crucial given the finite possessions and thus tackles are ‘ball-and-all’ with teams willing to give up a few yards to prevent the off-load.
It is also more direct in many respects, perhaps one-dimensional, especially for the first two or three tackles when you run directly at your opponent and try simply to make as many yards as possible. By no means does this detract from the skill of the players, though – many of them would be centres in union so they’re big, strong and very quick.
The off-loading skills are also superb, again given the finite number of possessions, as are the lines and angles which players run and many league players have converted to successful union players. Jason Robinson is one example that springs to mind for England. All in all, it was an absorbing and highly entertaining game and I and will definitely be watching more league going forward.
The second semi-final was nowhere near as exciting and as expected, Australia demolished Fiji set up a mouth-watering final against NZ this Saturday in Manchester. And I’m not sure who I’d prefer to win!