The Rugby League World Cup has always been like a party where only a handful of people turn up. One or two loudmouths dominate the party, everyone's waiting for an excuse to go home and the dip has strange, unappetising chunky bits in it.
The 2017 version of the RLWC -- which is currently happening in Australia and nearby nations -- was widely expected to be its usual dull self. It wouldn't be terrible. But if a good episode of Ice Road Truckers was on TV, you'd probably watch that instead.
But something magical is happening. "Meh" has turned to "whoa", or even "woohoo".
Fiji, Lebanon & Tonga singing in the sheds. War dances & hymns. Tartan shorts. Straw hats. What a weekend.— Name cannot be blank (@tyhrblue) 29 de outubro de 2017
Every game was great on the weekend. Even the predictable blowouts had their lovely moments. The whole thing was just great fun. Which when you think about it, is what sport's supposed to be.
— Lebanon Rugby League (@LebanonRL) 29 de outubro de 2017
The RLWC has been held 14 times previously. Australia has won ten times, England thrice and New Zealand once. It was kind of exciting in 2008 when the Kiwis won. But the tournament as a whole has always been a pale imitation of the Rugby World Cup (as in: the one for rugby union).
That's because rugby league is player in fewer nations than rugby union. And the only way rugby league could even stage a world cup was to co-opt Australian NRL players with ethnic backgrounds into playing for teams like Lebanon and Italy.
That's still happening this year, which is why Parramatta's Mitchell Moses is standing attractively in his striped undies in the video above after Lebanon beat France in a thriller in Canberra.
But something else happened in the lead-up to the 2017 Cup that has helped spice up this tournament. Top NRL players who could have been picked for Australia or New Zeaalnd chose instead to play for the countries of their birth, or their parents' birth.
Tonga fans on east hill still chanting & singing their hearts out. Terrific stuff. Rest of crowd cheering Scotland's heroic 2nd half defence pic.twitter.com/nGN3z5RKyV— Scotland RugbyLeague (@scotlandrl) 29 de outubro de 2017
Rugby league authorities had two choices at this point. They could kick up a stink, or they could allow it to happen for the greater good of the game. The great good prevailed. And the result? Tonga spanked Scotland 50-4, after having lost to them at the 2013 RLWC. And the sport became ever so slightly more genuinely international.
Even the opening match between Australian and England had a lovely vibe. The match itself was tense, as Australia really only put England to to bed with a late try. As a bonus, Melburnians got one last chance to farewell halfback Cooper Cronk, who is off to the Roosters.
The best moment of the weekend? You mean apart from the Lebanon players dancing?
And the Lebanon supporters dancing?
And the scene in the Fiji room after they easily beat the U.S.A.?
The weekend highlight had to be the crowd noise at Port Moresby. Did you know that Papua New Guinea is the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport? Well you do now.
The Rugby League World Cup goes for another four weeks. The last two weeks of that feature the women's World Cup too.
This all seemed like some pretty low grade sporting spakfilla before the cricket season at first, but not now.
This thing is great. It's a wonderful international sporting carnival, with fans adding to teh atmosphere at each match. And let's face it. Fourteen countries is still about 13 more than they'd have in an AFL World Cup.Suggest a correction