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Aussies set for Rugby League rivals
Sportsworld's Wayne Hay reports on the eve of the Rugby League World Cup.
Last Modified: 24 Oct 2008 23:40 GMT

England captain Peacock can expect a hostile native crowd against PNG [GALLO/GETTY]

The showpiece event on the Rugby League calendar kicks off on Saturday with home side Australia the firm favourites to win out of the 10 teams taking part in the World Cup.

But the Aussies aren't involved in the opening game of their own event.

Instead, the match is a low-key affair in northern Queensland, involving one of the sport's minnows - and Australia's fierce rivals, England.

No World Cup fever

Wandering around the streets of Townsville, there is little evidence that a World Cup is about to start here.

There are a few banners adorning lamp posts but apart from that, the locals seem to amble around in the tropical sun unaware that two international sporting teams are about to do battle.

The sleepy yet serene city of Townsville is in the far north of the state of Queensland and boasts a population of around 170,000.

It's a city more famous for its large port than its sport. It's a gateway for a lot of the steel, silver and nickel that's dug up from the parched land of outback Australia.

But it doesn't strike you as the sports capital of Australia, which begs the question – why did international Rugby League officials choose this very laid-back city to host the opening game of their showpiece tournament?

Local radio personality Steve Price is naturally very proud of his city and he said Townsville was a perfect place to stage international sport.

"Have a look around you. Just go around our city. Firstly we are a beautiful tropical city with a lifestyle that is second to none," he said.

Despite appearances, there is no denying Townsville is a Rugby League town,  boasting its own professional team that plays in the Australian national competition, the NRL.

Big support

PNG's John Wilshere should get local backing in Townsville [GALLO/GETTY] 
And the North Queensland Cowboys are one of the most supported teams in the league, averaging home crowds of more than 20,000 people.

The club chief executive Peter Parr said the supporters are true League followers.

"We're a blue collar club. We have people that are cane farmers, working out in the fields. Sure we get great corporate support but we're a community-owned club and we're a community asset," he said.

Whether that support for the Cowboys and for Rugby League in general translates into a big crowd to watch Papua New Guinea take on England on Saturday is highly unlikely.

Ticket sales for the match have been poor and the two sides are likely to run out into a half-full Dairy Farmers Stadium.

Underdog boost

But given the traditional sporting rivalry between Australia and England, many people who do turn up are likely to be supporting Papua New Guinea, providing a boost for the underdogs against the 'Poms'.

The Kumuls, as PNG are called after their national bird, aren't expected to win the tournament, although they’re the only nation in the world that can say Rugby League is their national sport.

PNG are coached by Adrian Lam, a former professional player who plied his trade in Great Britain and Australia. He also went on to represent Queensland in the tough State of Origin series.

He knows what the sport means to the Papua New Guineans.

"I guess in Papua New Guinea all they expect is that we give our best. If our best is good enough well so be it, but they're very passionate up there," he said.

Gunfire

Sometimes they're a little too passionate, like last month when police had to fire shots in the air to disperse the crowd after a game involving a second-string Australian team in Port Moresby.

But many believe international League bosses should be trying harder to harness that interest in a game which is played seriously at a professional level in only a handful of countries.

The international calendar is ad-hoc at best.

Lam wants to shake up the elite in Rugby League [GALLO/GETTY]
England, Australia and New Zealand are the strongest nations. But Papua New Guinea rarely feature, and Lam believes they need more respect and more matches.

"We want to try to get away from the 'big three' teams and try and get some more exposure throughout the other smaller countries," Lam said.

"I know the International Rugby League are trying to get more games for all countries."

Overhaul

Even the English players agree – the international game needs an overhaul.

Captain Jamie Peacock said if they want the game to grow, they need to be playing more matches against more teams.

"I think now's the time, after the World Cup, to move on. To play the likes of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga," he said.

"It would be good for England and the other bigger teams but it would be good for the smaller teams as well."

It's a sad indictment on the game that Peacock has been playing international League for nine years and has never played against Papua New Guinea.

Mind you, if PNG cause an upset on Saturday, he may not want to play them ever again.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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