Monday, November 2, 2009

Novelty and nostalgia reign as England v Australia goes back to the BBC

England may need something from the BBC highlights reel if they are to beat Australia in autumn internationals 2009.

Richie Myler would have been just five years old during England's 1995 World Cup campaign, which marked the end of regular terrestrial coverage. Photograph: Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto

Remember Jason Robinson scoring two tries on his Great Britain debut against New Zealand in 1993? Or Ellery Hanley chipping, regathering and linking with Daryl Powell to send Paul Eastwood over for a crucial try in the historic home victory against Australia three years earlier? Or perhaps best of all, Jonathan Davies rounding Brett Mullins to score the match-winning try in the first Test of the 1994 Ashes series for a Lions team who had been reduced to 12 men by the first-half dismissal of Shaun Edwards for a high tackle?

Those three rousing rugby league occasions had a few things in common which have been all too rare in recent years: they were all at Wembley; they each involved British victories over southern hemisphere opposition; and they took place on Saturday afternoons in front of a terrestrial television audience.

Those memories will be stirred this weekend as England play Australia in Wigan with a 2.30pm kick-off in the first international to have been screened live by the BBC for nine years, and only the second since 1995. That has left the older players in the squad grappling with a strange combination of novelty and nostalgia – while most of them grew up watching Ashes Tests on Grandstand, only the captain, Jamie Peacock, has played in a Saturday afternoon international.

Even then, it was an afternoon he would rather forget, as he came on as a substitute in the humiliating 49-6 defeat by New Zealand in the 2000 World Cup semi final. (Adrian Morley, the only other thirtysomething in the current England squad, was ruled out of that game by a rib injury.)

It is an even more chastening thought that the youthful majority of the current squad may struggle to recall the pre-Sky and Super League days when the national team were seen regularly on terrestrial TV. Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins were all of six during the 1995 World Cup that was effectively the end of the era of live international league on the Beeb; Richie Myler and Tom Briscoe, the two teenagers in the current squad, were just out of nursery school.

It is dangerously simplistic to suggest that Messrs Hanley, Davies, Edwards, Robinson and Martin Offiah were bigger stars in Britain than any rugby league player has been over the last decade or so, just because their deeds were seen more regularly by a terrestrial television audience than those of the likes of Andy Farrell, Sean Long, Keiron Cunningham and Robbie Paul. But the reversion to a Saturday afternoon international on the BBC, especially against Australia, could provide a major boost for the game in this country – if England can at least be competitive this weekend.

That's a worryingly big "if", given the most recent evidence – England's performances at last year's World Cup, including the 52-4 humiliation by the Aussies in Melbourne, and their unconvincing victory over France last weekend. Any danger of Australian complacency was blown away by New Zealand in their 20-20 draw at The Stoop, and the Kangaroos will surely be more cohesive for their second match of the tournament.

In Morley, Peacock, Sam Burgess, Gareth Ellis, James Graham and James Roby, England have the players to be reasonably hopeful of matching them in the pack.

But if they are to convert that into the sort of stirring performance and result that the likes of Hanley, Edwards and Davies managed late in the last century, they will need Shaun Briscoe to be heroic on his return to Wigan as the country's No1 full-back – another one in the eye for his home-town club; Lee Smith to make a real nuisance of himself against Greg Inglis; Ryan Hall to avoid any of the defensive errors that have marred his recent performances for club and country; Danny McGuire and Kevin Sinfield to reproduce their confident, dominant Super League performances on the international stage; and the three bright young half-back talents of Eastmond, Myler and Tomkins to respond positively to the greatest challenge of their brief careers.

If you want a pre-match pep-talk, I can steer you towards the Gareth Ellis quotes that appeared in the Guardian earlier this week, the Sam Burgess piece we'll be carrying on Saturday morning, and perhaps also the following names: Eastwood, Carl Gibson, Paul Loughlin and Allan Bateman, all backs who appeared in previous against-the-odds British wins against Australia.

The stakes for British rugby league would be huge anyway, but are raised another notch by the terrestrial exposure. Your best (and worst) CHG rugby league memories are welcome below – in fairness to Sky, we shouldn't pretend it was a golden era, and my earliest recollection is that the Beeb could only be bothered showing the second halves of the landmark 1982 Ashes series. Also any thoughts on the England team to be announced around the time this blog appears, or even the Pacific Cup and European Cup competitions, both of which will be shown on Sky this weekend as they build towards a decent climax.

It's certainly going to be a good feeling driving into Wigan on Saturday lunchtime, hoping for something approaching a rugby league miracle. The only thing missing now is the crumbling terraces and river caves of Central Park.

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