Game On column: In defence of the rugby league World Cup

Uplifting: The Fiji squad pray after a training session at WIN Stadium in 2008.  Robert Peet
Uplifting: The Fiji squad pray after a training session at WIN Stadium in 2008. Robert Peet

It was almost a decade ago now when my personal attitude towards rugby league’s World Cup changed.

Like many, this columnist had considered it at best a sideshow, having grown up wide-eyed in wonder at the beast we call State of Origin.

The player eligibility rules have been the punchline for those who love to stick the boot into rugby league, or just its place on the international stage.

The game’s legitimacy is questioned while ever players can change allegiances as freely as they can – and do.

But the code’s competitiveness cannot improve at a global level without having NRL stars using their heritage to wear another set of colours, other than Australia or New Zealand.

So the whole system is flawed, though improving – and it seems like international rugby league is finally becoming more comfortable in its own skin.

In 2008, the Fiji squad was training on the back field behind WIN Stadium when they embraced in one melodic hymn.

It was a touching, remarkable moment to witness first-hand. It was uplifting to see how it meant something more than just the result.

Opponents France went into the World Cup game at WIN Stadium as favourites, after opening the tournament with a 36-18 win over Scotland.

But Fiji, featuring Wes Naiqama, Jarryd Hayne, Akuila Uate, Ashton Sims and now Port Kembla coach James Storer, delivered a thumping 42-6 win.

Despite losing to Scotland in their next game, the margin in the win over France was enough to send them through to the semi-finals. 

And while they were thumped 52-nil by Australia there, the experience of covering Fiji’s campaign showed what it meant culturally to the team and the nation. Tonga have dominated the headlines this week, given the heavy artillery who have shunned New Zealand and Australia to represent them.

And while it’s inevitable the big three – Australia, New Zealand and England – will be there when it counts again, the decisions of Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Manu Ma'u, David Fusita and Sio Siua Taukeiaho indicate a significant shift in the game’s attitude.

Take me on: Jarryd Hayne plays for Fiji against France at WIN Stadium in 2008. Picture: Greg Totman

Take me on: Jarryd Hayne plays for Fiji against France at WIN Stadium in 2008. Picture: Greg Totman