Feeling on top of the world in spite of all England’s heartache

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams and England's Sam Burgess

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams and England's Sam Burgess

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HAS anyone really got over it yet?

A week is a long time in politics, but not long enough in rugby league. Yet those wretched 20 seconds did not go quickly enough either did they?

The pain of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat lingers on.

Tomorrow should be a celebration as a wonderful tournament draws to a conclusion with New Zealand and Australia battling away at a sold-out Old Trafford.

Yet there is that over-riding, nagging feeling it should be England – so vibrant, heroic and downright magnificent against New Zealand – rattling those Kangaroos instead.

Ifs, buts, maybes. They were less than half a minute away from a glorious chance to end 41 years of hurt, but Shaun Johnson just heaped on more agony.

The sheer sporting drama of England’s heartbreaking Wembley defeat to the Kiwis is consigned to history, but there are sleepless nights ahead for those trying to work out how it transpired.

What it did remind everyone of, however, is just how crucial international rugby league is for the enhancement of the sport.

In fairness, an enthralling World Cup had already done that with a series of captivating matches.

But that epic, bruising, unrelenting game against the holders, played out at frightening pace and intensity, underlined all of this.

There can be no better advert for the game as it seeks new viewers. Almost 3m people witnessed the drama unfold on BBC1 – a third of all those watching TV in the UK.

It is imperative that England play more games against the Kiwis and Australia to produce such high-class fare and have more people glued to their sets.

One-sided games against Wales and France will not suffice; give the public more of what they want and more of what the England side actually needs in order to bridge that gap.

Saturday was the best Test match seen on these shores since the equally heartbreaking 1990 Ashes series yet England have only played New Zealand twice anywhere in the last three years.

But, come tomorrow night and after the Wembley double-header, more than 140,000 supporters will have attended games on successive weekends; the appetite for high-calibre international RL is clearly there.

All that is for later, though, so let us concentrate on this tournament.

Ever since a spectacular opening ceremony in Cardiff, with England’s encouraging performance versus Australia allied to Italy’s shock win over Wales, the momentum has gathered pace.

Organisers pulled off a masterstroke by pitting some of the lesser nations together in Group C and D, ensuring plenty of closely-fought contests and none of the usual one-sided fare.

That allowed the likes of huge underdogs Italy and USA Tomahawks to write their own narratives in this World Cup.

For the disparate Americans, with so few resources, to win games against Cook Islands and Wales and reach the quarter-finals to face Australia in their first World Cup was fairytale stuff.

Steve McCormack’s Scotland securing a last-eight place should have been the story of the tournament, but even they were trumped by Terry Matterson’s inspired collaboration.

The Bravehearts, though, were riveting to watch with Danny Brough pulling the strings and those who witnessed their heroics, especially in Workington against Tonga and Italy, will long savour those memories.

Off-the-field events brought so much to this World Cup, too.

A tearful Brough and company belting out Flower of Scotland; opponents forming a circle with Fiji for the Bati’s traditional post-match prayer with unprompted crowds duly falling silent in respect; Tonga’s impromptu Sipi Tau war dance to a hugely appreciative main stand at The Shay after an epic win over Italy; Charlie Tonga’s skirt.

For sheer excitement there have been some wonderful players, making deciding on a ‘Team of the Tournament’ altogether tricky. However, here goes:

Teenage Samoa full-back Anthony Milford was simply brilliant with his attacking forays. Another tyro – 19-year-old Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – has been similarly blistering for New Zealand. With a frightening combination of pace, power and mesmerising footwork, the Sydney Rooster has scored eight tries and proved that his stunning NRL campaign was no fluke.

Admittedly, one of those, in last Saturday’s semi-final against England, was put on a plate by a truly unbelievable flick reverse pass from Dean Whare, the Penrith Panther who has emerged as a star in his own right.

For my money, he gets the nod with the incomparable Greg Inglis at centre while on the other wing Fiji’s explosive Akulia Uate pips Manu Vatuvei, Ryan Hall and Brett Morris for sheer thrills.

When it comes to stand-offs, the effervescent Brough, America’s rangy Joseph Paulo plus Australia’s irrepressible Johnathan Thurston all shone.

But any Kiwis worried about Benji Marshall’s withdrawal were quickly assuaged seeing Kieran Foran, clearly not as mercurial a talent as the Auckland Blues-bound stand-off but certainly a very effective organiser.

Moreover, no one has created more tries than the Manly No 6, who has assisted in nine scores, just ahead of Inglis (8) and Sam Tomkins (7), the England full-back who, strangely, failed to score in this World Cup, but was an attacking threat throughout.

Foran and Kangaroo Cooper Cronk are probably the form half-backs, although, annoyingly, Australia’s Daly Cherry-Evans has proved a half-decent deputy, too. You sense Paul Gallen would probably look like a world-beater at six for the Green and Golds.

Up front, there have been some brilliant individual performances amid it all, probably none better than runaway prop Sam Burgess’s all-action display against the Kiwis, but the England forward’s old adversary – Fuifui Moimoi – was a joy to watch when Tonga bowed out with victory against Italy at Halifax and Sonny Bill Williams was unplayable against Papua New Guinea and most others, to be fair.

Burgess could, realistically, be named at prop, second-row or loose-forward in a World Cup XIII given he has played every position and inspired in each.

I would pitch him in a second-row pairing with SBW, though, which would allow England colleagues Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham to feature at loose-forward and prop, respectively.

Burgess would make any Test side in the world, but it is not going too far to say, in this tournament, his two pack colleagues have shown they would nail a place in Australia or New Zealand’s team, too.

New Zealand’s livewire hooker Issac Luke has surpassed Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith so far – will that change tomorrow? – while towering Australian prop Andrew Fifita has rounded off a blistering season to edge Fiji’s retiring legend Petero Civoniceva out of the running.

The next World Cup in four years – whether at Australia/New Zealand or the new ground of South Africa – just cannot come quick enough.

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