Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Rugby League World Cup and Kevin Sinfield


From the current issue of the Big Issue in the North magazine 
Kevin Sinfield is preparing intensively to lead England in the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup. But as Mark Metcalf discovers, that hasn’t stopped the Leeds star from generously giving his time to those just starting in the game
The 14th Rugby League World Cup kicks off this Saturday when the co- hosts, England and Wales, line up against Australia and Italy respectively at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Fourteen sides will take part in the competition, which Australia is favourite to win. Yet when it was last held in 2008 the New Zealanders created a major surprise by beating the Aussies 34-20 in the final at Brisbane.
Third favourites this time are England and a side led by Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield will be hoping to emulate their 1966 football and 2003 rugby union cousins by winning the World Cup for the first time. England have twice reached the final but will need to raise their game considerably to enjoy success. In 12 matches between England and Australia, the former have won once and also drawn another game. When the pair last met two years ago the Australian side won 30-8.
Sinfield is though confident of an upset. “We understand the challenges in front of us but there is a belief we have the players to do it,” he says. “We need to start well and ensure we give the Australians lots of problems in the first match.
“Beating them would be great, but New Zealand didn’t do it when the pair clashed early in 2008 and managed it in the final later. So whilst a good start is important it’s where you finish at the end that matters.”
Sinfield has form in this respect, as in 2011 and 2012 he led a Leeds side that finished in fifth place in the league to victory in the Super League play-offs that decide the rugby league title winners.
This is only the second World Cup tournament in 13 years. Australia easily won the trophy in 2000 and the crowd for the final, which was played at Old Trafford, was just 44,329 – 30,000 less than Manchester United attract for their league games there. A series of mismatches in the early stages did not help and neither did including a Lebanon side composed entirely of Australians of Lebanese heritage. A number of matches were played in regions where rugby league had hardly any previous following and crowds suffered accordingly, with Wales taking on Lebanon before just 1,497 people in Llanelli.
In 2013 the tournament organisers have taken a less experimental approach and have concentrated most matches in the northern heartlands with odd exceptions such as the game between Australia and Ireland, which takes place in Limerick.
Attracting people who have never previously seen a rugby league game is one of the objectives. World Cup communications manager Martin Johnston says: “Sales figures already mean we are guaranteed this will be the best attended World Cup ever. Pleasingly 18 per cent of our tickets have gone to people who have never bought a ticket for rugby league before.”
Sinfield feels newcomers will “enjoy watching the games, especially as in the 13 years since the World Cup last took place in Britain the gap between top and bottom has narrowed. I have little doubt there will be a couple of upsets as there are lesser fancied teams with some players who play their club rugby at the highest levels of the game. England must make sure we are not amongst one of the upsets.”
In addition to playing Australia, England play Ireland and Fiji in the group stages. Eight sides will then compete in the quarter-finals.
In 2008, Sinfield was a member of the England side trounced 52-4 by Australia. It was a dark, depressing day. In the aftermath the England rugby league set-up was restructured by new coach Steve McNamara, with training camps throughout the year and a “Knights” squad to shadow the first team.
Sinfield believes the outcome “is the best environment I have been part of internationally. People have sacrificed a lot and we hope to reap the rewards. I am very proud to captain my country, but the squad also includes a number of other leaders.”
The squad includes three Burgess brothers – Sam and younger twins George and Tom. A fourth, Luke, almost also made it. All play for the same club: the Rabbitohs of south Sydney.
The Wigan star Sam Tomkins has just joined a growing list of English players moving south by joining the New Zealand Warriors of the Australian National Rugby League (NRL). His salary is rumoured to be £400,000 a year, double what a top player might earn in England.
Rugby league followers in this country are worried about the long- term impact that the loss of stars such as the Burgess brothers and Tomkins will have on the game’s long-term future. Johnston was guarded when asked if England needed to win the World Cup to ensure that Super League retains its priority amongst players born here. “The world’s best players are split between Super League and the Australian NRL. England look very well prepared for the World Cup and have a chance of winning it.”
Whether or not England can capture the trophy when the final takes place at Old Trafford on
30 November, Sinfield is convinced that judging its success must include making a profit.
“We are a professional sport and must make money to pay people properly and ensure there is re- investment in the game at every level. We need to attract good attendances and produce a product that entertains those watching in the grounds and on television.”
Sinfield has previously expressed an interest in becoming a club chief executive when he retires from playing and is doing a masters degree in sports business. His busy schedule has not though prevented him continuing to charm anyone he meets. Talking to a volunteer at Bradford Northern last weekend I was told that on meeting a couple of talented rugby-mad youngsters a few days earlier the England captain had taken them to a local caf√© to discuss their long-term ambitions, leaving with a promise to keep in touch. Here’s hoping the good guy really does come first on 30 November.
Tries as they might
Fourteen teams will compete in the competition, with Italy and the US both making their first appearance. Only two of the entrants – Australia (nine wins) and New Zealand (one) – have previously captured the trophy, although before England and Wales entered separately Great Britain were victorious in 1954, 1960 and 1972. England would appear to be the only side capable of stopping Australia or New Zealand – the last winners in 2008 – of capturing the trophy. The tournament starts on 26 October and games take place all across the north.
New Zealand 
The defending champions will surely make it to the final four. Coach Stephen Kearney pulled off the all-time shock of the World Cup when he inspired his side to beat Australia in the 2008 final. Two years later this success was repeated at the 2010 Rugby League Four Nations tournament. Can New Zealand now create a third upset? Playing in black, the Kiwis are sure to entertain the crowd prior to kick-off by performing the haka – the traditional Maori war dance.
Australia 
Having had their dominance ended by New Zealand in 2008 the Australians will be keen to re-assert themselves by winning the tournament for the tenth time. They have the best league in the world and in fullback Billy Slater possess arguably the greatest player in the game today and player of the tournament in 2008. Slater will line up alongside captain Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, his teammates at Melbourne Storm, current World Club Champions.
England 
First played in the tournament in 1975 and have twice lost out to Australia in the final. The Lions are ranked third in the world and coach Steve McNamara, who has chosen three brothers – Sam, George and Tom Burgess – in his squad, will be under pressure to ensure England do considerably better than in 2008 when they were thrashed 52-4 by hosts Australia.
Papua New Guinea 
Rugby league is the country’s most popular sport and many local players leaving to pursue careers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand have boosted the national side. Unlucky last time to be placed in
a group containing the three best sides in the world, there is genuine hope that they can make it to the last eight by finishing second in a group containing New Zealand, Samoa and France. Captain Paul Aiton plays his club rugby for Wakefield Trinity.
Cook Islands
Despite being able to name 24 players, head coach David Farleigh has chosen to opt for just 22 players. Three – Wigan’s Anthony Gelling, Bradford’s Keith Lulia and Zeb Taia from the Catalans Dragons – currently play in the British Super League. This will be only the second time they have appeared at the World Cup and in 2000 they lost to Wales and New Zealand before drawing with Lebanon.
Ireland
The Wolfhounds are participating in their third tournament and have included four players – Brett White, Rory Kostjasyn, James Hasson and Api Pewhairangi – from Australia’s NRL competition in their squad. They will be joined by ten players from the Super League, including winger Pat Richards, who has just ended an illustrious Wigan Warriors career on a high by scoring a try in the 30-16 defeat of Warrington in the recent Rugby League Grand Final.
Tonga 
This is the fourth time the Polynesian state has competed at rugby league’s top level. National coach
Charlie Tonga had a wayward youth and spent time in jail for assault. A chance meeting with pastor Noel Gallagher helped him rebuild his career and he later became a pastor himself. Tonga trounced Scotland 48-0 in 2008 to finish in seventh place and, with ties this time against Italy, Scotland and the Cook Islands, will surely make the quarter finals at least.

France 
Second behind England in the European rankings the French should improve on their tenth place in 2008.
The only team outside England to currently play in the Super League are Catalans Dragons and their success is boosting the popularity of rugby league. Olivier Elima will lead his country with the aim of matching second-placed finishes in 1954 and 1968, a period when France played an attacking brand of rugby that is still fondly remembered by followers of the game today.
Wales 
Wales failed to qualify for the 2008 World Cup but under coach and former player Iestyn Harris
the game has made big progress in recent seasons. Home advantage and games against the USA, Cook Islands and Italy should help the Dragons progress to the last eight. In Rhys Williams, Craig Kopczak and Elliot Kear they have some talented players.

Italy 
Possibly the weakest of the 14 sides, but captained by Sydney Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello, whose younger brother Mark is also in the squad. Watch out too for Terry Campese, the nephew of rugby union legend David Campese.
Samoa
This is the second time the Pacific Islanders have qualified for the World Cup. In addition to players from the Australian NRL and the Super League, coach Matt Parish will include at least two who play at home. Parish will also include a Samoa-based assistant as part of a long-term plan to develop rugby league in Samoa.
Fiji 
The shock successes of the 2008 tournament, finishing in fourth place. Much of that squad has now retired from playing. Petero Civoniceva, who moved to Australia and played 45 times for his adopted country, captains the side. Coach Rick Stone is confident his side will do well. He said: “Most of the players in the Australian and New Zealand squads, our boys play them week in and week out so they know how to play the big boys.”
USA 
There are just six teams in the USA Rugby League and yet no player from champions Philadelphia Fight has been selected for a squad containing 10 born in America. Much will depend on how captain Joseph Paulo, who plays in the Australian NRL for Parramatta Eels, can inspire a squad also containing his brother, Junior Paulo. Clint Newton has played for Melbourne Storm and Hull KR.
Scotland 
The Bravehearts will again largely consist of second and third-generation Scots. Danny
Brough, 2013 Man of Steel – the rugby league player of the year – will be joined by three NRL players in Kane Linnett, Peter Wallace and Matt Russell. But much will depend on the outcome of the first game against Tonga.

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