12 Jun 2020

Hemmings Way: World Cup memories

When I hung up my microphone for the last time on 19 April, 2019 at the Wigan-Saints derby the Wigan club ran a two page story about my career with Sky. One of the headlines from it was “My only regret would be that I haven’t called an Ashes winning series.”

How true that is – but you can also add that another regret is that I have not seen – never mind commentated on, a Great Britain or England World Cup win. To be fair I am not on my own here – for the last time we cheered a home win in the World Cup was way back in 1972.

Two years previously in 1970 At Headingley Great Britain had come close in a 7-12 defeat to Australia. It was a game remembered for the fisticuffs that broke out on several occasions and for referee Fred Lindop finally losing his patience and sending off Britain’s centre Syd Hynes and the Aussie scrum half Billy Smith. They walked off arm in arm seconds after trading blows!

Great Britain got their revenge two years later though across the Channel in France when the late great Clive Sullivan lifted the trophy at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. My dear old mate Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson was in the side and scored a try in the 10-all draw that November day. Great Britain being declared the winners on count-back because they had recorded the most league points from the qualifying matches! Quite bizarre that…  in this day and age!

Many Aussies of course don’t believe won the tournament at all – saying they’d won merely on a technicality. In many ways I suppose they’re right – but as an Englishman who’s suffered so much anguish against the Kangaroos down the years I have to say “Who cares?” Stevo certainly doesn’t!!

During my 30 years at Sky we covered The Lions Tour of 1992, the Tri-Nations Tour in 2006 and the last time we ventured to the Southern Hemisphere in 2010 as a group was for the Four Nations Tour. Each one I remember with great fondness.

The World Cups we were involved in though provided extra special spice – in 2000 on home soil… and again in 2008 when we were back down under flying the flag for the Home Nations.

In 2000 we shared the broadcast rights with BBC TV and we had some exceptional games. I’ll never forget the Quarter Final at Leeds between England (as they were by then) and Ireland.

Terry O’Connor and Barrie McDermott both starred for the Irish that day and played a full part in a rousing match that eventually saw the English scrape home in a 26-16 victory. That first meeting between the two sides had all that was predicted – a real battle for a place in the semi-final.

Stuart Fielden – a 21 year-old prop forward that day – won the man of the match award after a torrid battle with Baz and Tez – and England progressed to the semi-final but they were to lose badly 6-49 to New Zealand  at Bolton.

The other great memory of that 2000 World Cup was the other semi-final between Wales and Australia at Huddersfield. It was a game that Sky had live and at half time I remember we were sitting on the biggest upset in history  as the Welsh led 20 points to 14 at half time (they were 20-8 up inside the first half hour!)

Ian Watson, Kris Tassell (Salford) and the one and only Lee Briers had scored tries against the Australians – Lee also added two drop goals – and the unbelievable was unfolding before our very eyes. Sadly, in the second half the Welsh ran out of steam and the Aussies won in the end 46-22. But what a story the men in red had so nearly given us.

As I say were sharing the broadcast rights in 2000 with the BBC and there was a huge debate about which organisation would provide the pictures for the Final. Obviously, the BBC wanted them but so too did we and it was decided the only way to settle the argument was to rely on the toss of a coin!

Neville Smith, our head of rugby league at the time, was by now back home in Australia working on the World TV feed at the Sydney Olympics. So, the coin toss featured Ray French for the BBC and Nev’s deputy at the time Mark Forsyth. Sir Rodney Walker would toss the coin. Nev had spoken to Mark prior to the big day and instructed him a) not to lose the toss and b) to call ‘Heads’ when given the chance!!

Sir Rodney’s hand went in his pocket and before he even produced the coin Mark shouted “HEADS” such was his desperation not to lose – Heads it was, and Sky won the gig!

Our cameras focussed on Brad Fittler lifting the trophy at Old Trafford having beaten New Zealand by 40 points to 12.

2008 was a special year for us on Sky – for the first time ever every game from the World Cup was to be shown live back in the UK. It could have been a logistical nightmare, but Neville Smith somehow arranged for commentators and crew to be at every game – everywhere from Townsville in North Queensland to Melbourne in Victoria and finally back in Brisbane for the Final.

The size of the task wasn’t helped by the fact that on November 5th 2008 there were two games – Scotland v Fiji on the Central Coast and Ireland v Samoa at Parramatta. Both vitally important to audiences back home. Resources would be stretched – so Phil Clarke, Bill Arthur and I stayed in Sydney for the Ireland game while Stevo and Ben Proe were dispatched in a hire car to the Central Coast to follow the Scots.

On the way the car was caught speeding in a radar trap – we all believe that Stevo was at the wheel! The fine though didn’t arrive for a couple of months – not until were back home in fact. The car had been hired for Sky in the name of Kevin Connor our Production Manager at the time, so the penalty was in his name! Of course, Stevo claimed complete innocence!!

On the field in ’08 England missed out on yet another final losing to New Zealand in the semi-final so the Kiwis faced Australia in Brisbane. It was memorable even before the game started because during the HAKA the Aussies advanced on the Kiwis right up to the half way line and faced them nose to nose… nothing was going to intimidate them… or so they thought!

Eighty minutes later New Zealand, with Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett at the helm, had scored a breakthrough victory to claim their first ever World Cup with a  34-20 victory – the crucial moments coming  in the second half as a suicidal pass from Billy Slater gifted Benji Marshall a try and then Joel Monaghan’s tackle on Lance Hohaia giving the Kiwis a crucial Penalty Try to clinch their history book win.

At Sky that was our last World Cup involvement. We all watched in horror through in 2013 the last time the tournament was held on British soil and again England were so near yet so far.

Tries from Sean O’Loughlin, Kallum Watkins and Sam Burgess saw us leading New Zealand in the semi-final at Wembley 18-14 with just 20 seconds left to play. This was surely it? But then Shaun Johnson skipped past two defenders to level the scores before kicking the conversion to take the Kiwis to the final in the most heart breaking manner… 20-18.

And will we ever forget 2017? Australia-England in Final which Australia won by the narrowest of margins 6-0… but what would have happened had Kallum Watkins not been ankle tapped by Josh Duggan with 15 minutes to go with the line very much at his mercy as England were gaining the upper hand!

The Rugby League World Cup – a tournament filled with what if’s...but’s…and maybe’s….less than 500 days and counting until the next one. Let’s hope we get to see all the drama unfold again in 2021.

Meanwhile, as always stay safe.