Stuart Wilson – Forza Italia: English Hopes Turn To Dread

British rugby league fans are a unique bunch, mostly fickle working class they epitomise everything that has been great about the British game for the last century. Keen to air their views loudly and without recompense they trundle along weekly, watch half a game, proclaim it is shit and then leave citing their reasons as ‘beating traffic’.

But what is great about being a British fan is that feeling of hope, that yearning to relive 1972 through a vision and not our fathers smoke stained teeth whilst he holds a crusty roll up reliving decades gone by. And really it is the same with any sport, for instance, British fans got themselves wet over shooting during the Olympics, or suddenly realised they like Tennis when Murray made the Wimbledon final. It is because as British we are genetically coded to think we are the greatest nation on earth, at everything, fact.

Die hard rugby league fans pay £20 a month for a few sky games and then there are others like myself that have NRL in our living rooms and feel truly spoiled by the spectacle of the Southern Hemisphere. Convincing ourselves that Graham was right to munch Slater’s ear and that the South’s only did so well because of the Burgess brothers. Yes, the NRL is great – But only because there are British players in it. So surely, when those boys came home for the World Cup they would form a team so immense that the Kiwi’s and Aussies would be shoulder charged into retirement by the fifteenth minute.

This belief was bolstered by announcement of the line up, and I admit – On paper the England team look bloody good. And of course, that British genome within me sprang to life and explained away the fact we have McNamara as our coach and that the British born Man of Steel isn’t in the squad and that we have a Kiwi calling the shots on the field. No, we had a solid front row reinforced with a magical back row and with Sam Tomkins and Sam Burgess amongst those ranks – We had it all. We were genuinely ready to take on the world.

It actually all started really well and it didn’t take long for the world cup and the surrounding hysteria to take motion. With some fantastic ticket packages that are affordable and worthwhile it seemed like the RFL had really listened (apart from the dick head decision to have the opening games in Cardiff) and before long the Rugby League faithful were snapping up tickets, grounds were selling out and 60,000 tickets had been shifted for the final. The world cup was here, we were ready and so when I jumped in the car headed down the M62 to Salford I was confident of an afternoon filled with British greatness and all to the back drop of Jerusalem and a queue already formed for our obvious place in the final.

Two warm up games were scheduled, one was the English Knights v Samoa, which was a massive 27 man Samoan squad versus an English squad with players on the fringes of excellence. I was genuinely surprised when England romped to a 52 – 16 thrashing over a good, but ill-disciplined Samoan side that just could not keep hold of the ball. The knights had comprehensively beaten a massive bunch of blokes looking for blood – The afternoon had started well.

The second game was England v Italy, a minor clash between the mighty England side against a semi Italian side dotted with the odd NRL fantastico, a la Minnicello. Still, a destroying was obviously in order. The game started well, but after about a minute the game plan become clear: Get the ball to Sam Burgess or James Graham and have them drive it in looking for a cheeky offload where Tomkins or Hock (Mcnamara had foreseen the irony of having both Hock and Cockayne in the England squad and so relegated the latter to the Knights) would be waiting to follow up the pass. By the tenth minute the tactics were looking tired as Lafranchi posted the Italian sides first points which were converted seamlessly by Mantellato. With Minnicello directing Italy from the rear and England leading from the front the game was on. England remained at zero until Ablett pinched a try on the twentieth minute. Sinfield missed the kick from fifteen metres in and Broughs snigger could heard from Scotland. England continued the tactics until Italy again managed a score via Parata which was duly converted.

On the following kick off an outstanding piece of brilliance turned the crowds opinion of the game. Sinfield tickled the ball from the centre spot almost exactly ten metres, he regained it, and through what will probably be the best try of the England campaign, passed it to Tomkins who took the ball through the Italian line and put England in front. It was Tomkins at his best, and I, like most other English fans relished the skill of this man whilst still on home turf. Sinfield again missed the conversion from almost the same spot as his previous failure.

By half time Tomkins had gone over the whitewash again and scored the countries third try, Kev had been relieved by Widdop who put over England’s only conversion of the game and the English side went into half time 14 – 12 up.

Now I have to admit, all things considered it was a dull first half, the English side just didn’t look interested. It was almost as though they were simply going through the motions, led by a small group who looked like they gave a shit. Namely Sam and Luke Burgess, Leroy Cudjoe and Sam Tomkins. The rest of the team were dragged along at a mediocre pace and who all looked like they had blown their load by the time Silverwood blew up for the break.

The second half for England was worse, Italy were playing their arses off though really should have been long out of the game. But through continual calamities of errors such as a knock on ten metres out from a gift try by Ryan Hall, or Rangi Chase deciding to pass to players who just weren’t there, things went from bad to worse as Italy racked up a penalty which drew them level at the 70 minute mark.

By the time Mantellato popped one over the sticks at 79 minutes sealing Italy a 15 point victory over England’s 14, clarity had been resumed. Half the 5000 crowd had left, and the England players who just a couple of hours previous had been keen to have their photographs taken were sloping off wondering what just happened. By the time I got home Mcnamara had made his excuses, the generic form which blames everyone and everything but himself had been spewed out to waiting and salivating rugby league journalists all keen to polish his balls and carry on the optimism to next Saturday.

But fans, well – We were left wondering just how a team that played so badly, from a country we should have hammered, managed to steal a win from us. And I use us precariously, because as English fans we like to feel a bit of connection to the players. To our national team, to 1972 and to actually being decent at something. We believe we are the greatest, that we can beat everyone and I know that deep down we don’t believe it, its simply faithful folk grasping to a glimmer hope.

But despite all that bravado, one thing resounds quite loudly amongst probably most English fans right now; Come Saturday we face Australia and hope has now turned to dread. The wheels have fallen off before the train has even got moving, and though I hear calls of “it was only a warm up game” I accept that – But sure as shit we should have beaten Italy!

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