World Cup overshadowed by bar brawl, bans and drunk players Perth control England confident of progress
Scandals have eclipsed uplifting moments in opening weeks of the event, writes Sam Dean
Hours after a 74-6 schooling of Scotland in their second game of the rugby league World Cup, the New Zealand squad ambled into the departure lounge of Christchurch airport and made their way towards security.
They had a flight to catch but first, airport staff told them, there was some gossip they might be interested to hear. The Kiwis soon learned the Scotland team had been at the airport a few hours before, and that three of them were so boozed up that they were unable to board their flight.
The news soon spread and it was not long before it was announced that Sam Brooks, Johnny Walker and captain Danny Brough had been hurled out of the Scotland squad and sent home.
Keith Hogg, the chairman of Scotland Rugby League, phrased it delicately. “They clearly had been drinking in an inappropriate fashion,” he told New Zealand news site Stuff. “The consequences of that became very obvious at the airport.”
Brooks, who has since returned to the UK for pre-season training with club side Featherstone Rovers, later issued a dutifully apologetic statement accepting his actions were “nothing short of unacceptable and, more importantly, totally embarrassing”.
And yet the trio’s tale of debauchery is just the latest instalment in a whole series of mishaps and scandals that have plagued the opening weeks of the World Cup. Some of them have been amusing, others troubling, and all have been a source of awkwardness for the sport at what is its showpiece event.
It all began in a Cairns bar when Italy’s Shannon Wakeman punched his own team-mate, James Tedesco, reportedly flooring him, because he believed Tedesco was flirting with his girlfriend. Tedesco has denied propositioning Aimee Bloomfield, saying it was a “miscommunication” between the two players that was quickly sorted out the next morning with a handshake. Yet the story rumbled on, partly because Tedesco is an NRL star, and also because Bloomfield herself waded in, saying: “What happened was deeply upsetting. I’m not sure Shannon and James are still talking, I haven’t seen them together since the fight.”
A few days later, shortly after the Scotland episode, France hooker Eloi Pelissier joined Brough, Brooks and Walker in being sent home as punishment after he was found to have broken a curfew.
Marc Palanques, the president of the French Rugby League Federation, said Pelissier had committed “a serious breach of the disciplinary regulations of the team”.
It followed the decision to jettison utility man Hakim Miloudi from the squad for disciplinary reasons after a match against Jamaica.
The next twist came last weekend, when England’s Jermaine McGillvary was accused of biting Lebanon captain Stefan Ratchford admits England will have no excuses for not completing the job when they meet France in their last World Cup group game today.
England still need a point to secure a quarter-final spot. But Ratchford says they will know exactly what to expect at Perth’s Rectangular Stadium against a side featuring nine players from Super League outfit Robbie Farah during Saturday’s group match in Sydney. Farah did not attend the subsequent disciplinary hearing and it took just three minutes for a judiciary panel to clear McGillvary, who branded the accusation “outrageous”.
There was no lasting damage, but it’s another unwelcome headline.
Not to be sidelined by the various escapades of the Scottish and English, Wales then took the opportunity to pour their own brand of kerosene on to the bonfire. Step forward coach John Kear, whose frank assessment of the tournament was that it was viewed as a “third-tier competition” in Australia, where some of the crowds have been smaller than hoped.
“You have got to have wake-up calls and I think we are getting one,” he said. “I get the impression from speaking to people involved in the game in the southern hemisphere that this is looked upon as a third-tier comp.
“They say State of Origin is the top tier, followed by NRL and this is a standard below NRL and it probably is. That’s reflected by the interest in it.”
A day later, it felt fitting that a surfing lesson for the Wales squad, who have lost heavily to Papua New Guinea and Fiji, was abandoned when sharks were spotted.
And yet to focus on all this is to do a disservice to the actual sport on show. If you look beyond these off-field difficulties, you will find plenty of highs to go with the lows.
How about Samoa and Tonga performing their pre-match war dances together, fusing culture and passion? Or the delight on the face of Sam Burgess when his brother Tom slalomed through to score for England against Lebanon? And what of New Zealand’s Shaun Johnson, who became his country’s top points scorer in that Scotland thrashing?
That’s not forgetting the dream of glory for England, which remains alive despite defeat by Australia. Wayne Bennett’s side face France today in their final group game before the knockout stages. That is when things get interesting. And that, the organisers will hope, will be when attention turns to events on the field, rather than the fireworks off it.