On most days of the year I would be taken aback to see a rugby league shirt on the streets of London. Today is different but it takes a while to get used to it. The Rugby League World Cup has been taking place since the end of October. Most games have been played in the game’s northern heartland, with the odd excursion to France and even Munster. But the semi-finals are to be played in London at Wembley in a double-header, with England first up against current world champions New Zealand, followed by favourites Australia playing Fiji.
The problem with the “new” Wembley is the same now as it was when the Empire Stadium opened in 1923; it’s in Wembley. Among London’s least attractive suburbs, Wembley may be close to a whole network of railways and motorways but it can still be a pain to get to. Luckily the revamped Wembley Park tube station copes well delivering the vast majority of the crowd.
Walking down the Olympic way is part of the great Wembley ritual, but the World Cup organisers seemed to have spent considerably less than other match organisers “dressing” the stadium and the visual approach is underwhelming compared to,say,NFL games here. The stewards were friendly and knowledgeable enough, but why does the over-loud PA system insist on reminding us why we are here. I’d have thought most fans already had a pretty good idea.
The organisers must have been worried about the likely attendance as a few months ago I was able to secure a couple of tickets for £20 each. They were for seats at the back of the second tier, and I had lots of legroom. The view from the side of the sticks was clear and our half of the pitch was close enough. But when play went down to the other end most eyes automatically lifted to the big screen as it was difficult to tell who anyone was way down there. It’s an unavoidable problem in any stadium of this size-in some spots the action is too far away for the human eye.
The faces at full-time said it all. England, 20 seconds from the World Cup final, crumbled to the floor. Wembley fell silent. New Zealand danced. This was the cruellest of defeats, snatched from the jaws of victory. Leading 18-14 with the match entering its final minute, England conceded a late penalty. As the black wave neared the England line, Shawn Johnson shimmied and breached the barricades with 20 seconds remaining. He converted his own try to send New Zealand to Manchester’s final and England to ponder what might have been.
Players dropped to their knees; I swear a few in the 67,545 crowd did the same. England have suffered their share of agonies in the 41 years since Great Britain were last crowned world champions, although nothing as cruel as on Saturday.
P.S. On Sunday I watched ( with an incredible sense of déjà vu) on T.V. as rugby union’s All Blacks prevented Ireland inflicting their first defeat in 2013, and what would have been Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand, with a try with the last play of the game.
More pictures from the game can be found here.