Four years ago, Sam Burgess gave one of the best individual performances I have seen. Unfortunately, England lost the best rugby league game I have seen, Shaun Johnson’s piece of magic inside the final 10 seconds of the World Cup semi-final rendering me speechless, bar the occasional two syllable oath, with disappointment for about 15 minutes.
Two years later, Burgess was not even part of England’s final match squad of 23 as their hapless rugby union World Cup campaign spluttered to an end in front of thousands of bored spectators at the Etihad Stadium. Across town at Old Trafford that night, two rugby league greats – Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock – ended their Leeds careers by completing the treble.
Peacock said Burgess at Wembley put on “the greatest individual performance I have seen in an England shirt for the last 20 years”, which was some statement from a man responsible for some great international performances. Peacock, as team manger, and Sinfield, as the RFL’s sporting director, are now part of the organisation behind Burgess and the rest of the England squad in their latest attempt to overcome Australia’s near-monopoly on the World Cup.
That kicks off tomorrow (Friday) with England playing Australia, the now traditional start, especially since the gruesomely empty stands at a rainy, windswept Windsor Park in 2000 for Ireland against Samoa. This being rugby league the qualification system is not the most straightforward and anyone truly interested is directed elsewhere. While not as blatant as 2008, when Papua New Guinea were lumped in with Australia, England and New Zealand, the organisers are always keen to ensure that trio are in the final four.
That wish could be in some doubt because the Kiwis are without their captain, Jesse Bromwich, and another outstanding forward in Kevin Proctor after allegations of cocaine use in May. They have also lost players to other nations, most notably Jason Taumalolo, who, like many others, has taken advantage of the new rule that players who qualify for more than one country can choose to represent a tier-two nation if they do not play for one of the three tier-one nations. This has spread the South Sea Island talent around and has left many eyeing up Tonga as potential troublemakers. Their game with the Kiwis on November 11 may be the most, ahem, physical of the tournament.
Australia are, as ever, favourites although the 1-4 on offer is a lot more generous than previous tournaments. They, too, have been disrupted by late departures to other teams and they are also without the injured Johnathan Thurston, but their other greats of the game – Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater – are present for one last blast.
This is likely to be one of the more unpredictable World Cups thanks to the relaxed qualification rule and England’s first appearance in the final since 1995 would be nice, but it will need plenty of displays that near or even match Burgess’s in 2013.