Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Greatest Game Never Played (2011)

In 1984, a one-off match was played pitting the world’s best against each other in an epic, never-before attempted fixture.

And sadly, it has never been tried since.

It was a game between Oceania and Europe. The concept was a brilliant one and could very well have been considered as the greatest international fixture on the Rugby League calendar.

However, the early to mid-1980's was a time of very talented young Kiwi players, a dominating, practically unbeatable Australian team, a British team in transition between the upcoming talent and the elder statesmen at the end of their careers, and a rapid decline in the French game.

This all resulted in a 54-4 hiding of the Europeans. The Oceania team, containing Mal Meninga, Gene Miles, Dean Bell, Wally Lewis, Steve Mortimer, Wayne Pearce, Ray Price, Mark Graham, Hugh McGahan and the Tamati brothers, were far too good for a European side boasting Ellery Hanley, Des Drummond and Joel Roosebrouck.

A similar game today would very likely yield a much more lopsided result in favour of the Oceania side, especially given the increase in quality of players from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, coupled with the two dominant test nations, Australia and New Zealand.

But there was a time when the world game provided hard fought with neither side clear favourites. It was a time when the game was arguably at its peak.

In the 74 tests played between the years of 1961 and 1969, international Rugby League was better than ever. The below ladder shows each test nation and its record in this time:

Team Pl W D L F A
Australia* 37 24 1 12 639 392
Great Britain 40 21 1 18 658 564
France 37 14 3 20 362 605
New Zealand* 34 11 3 20 404 502

*Tests played by Australia and New Zealand against South Africa have not been included

International Rugby League was at its strongest in this time due largely to all nations regularly participating in tours to other Test playing countries. This ensured World Cup competitions were closely fought and widely followed.

When this format began to slow, mostly due to club level support dwindling, all nations opted to spend their time and focus primarily on their own competitions and international rugby league took a back seat.

The game started its downward turn in 1979-80 when France decided against touring to Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea as frequently; Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand all began shortening the length of their tours and Papua New Guinea's foray into touring came to an abrupt halt all by the mid 90's. The game clearly suffered and no better evidence could be seen than in the most lopsided, uninteresting World Cup ever contested in 1995.

Thus it is clear to see that the last true golden era of international Rugby League was in the 1960's. This would have been the perfect time to have a regular Oceania vs. Europe fixture, as it would have seen an even number of genuine stars from all nations, in every jumper on the field, with no weak points anywhere.

I have thus listed a potential line up for the 1960's era Oceania vs. Europe:

Oceania vs. Europe
Keith Barnes -1- Andre Carrere
Roy Christian -2- Claude Mantoulan
Reg Gasnier -3- Raymond Gruppi
Graeme Langlands -4- Eric Ashton
Ken Irvine -5- Billy Boston
Jim Bond -6- Dave Bolton
Billy Smith -7- Tommy Bishop
Peter Gallagher -8- Christian Sabatie
Ian Walsh -9- Yves Begou
Elton Rasmussen -10- Cliff Watson
Ron Ackland -11- Robert Eramouspe
Mel Cooke -12- Henri Marracq
Ron Coote -13- Derek Turner

Dick Thornett -14- Mick Sullivan
Jock Butterfield -15- Neil Fox
Eddie Lumsden -16- Alex Murphy
Cyril Eastlake -17- Georges Ailleres

The Australian backs at the time are still regarded as the best the game has ever seen.

The British outside backs and halves are considered as possibly the greatest to ever represent their nation.

The French front row was declared as the best the game had ever seen at the time and for many ensuing years.

The New Zealand back rowers were also some the greatest kiwi's to ever don the black jersey.

This game would have been tough, rough, fiery, brutal yet full of skill, speed and agility. It very likely would have been regarded as the greatest exhibition of rugby league.

Unfortunately, it will just remain as the greatest game never played.

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