The Greatest Game of All has now been exposed to the most lucrative sporting market of them all.
In what was a fitting advertisement for rugby league, England pulled off an impressive 36-18 comeback victory against New Zealand in Denver. There were nine tries in all – James Graham unsuccessfully attempted to convert the last – with England proving too strong after a slow start.
A crowd of 19,320 turned up to witness history. Although smaller than hoped, it was a fair attendance comsidering local MLB side Colorado Mets – playing at the same time just down the road – pulled 39,032 sporting fans out of the precinct.
A deal brokered with CBS meant the game was beamed into up to 60 million households across the US and Canada. Even if only a small fraction tuned in, rugby league has received invaluable exposure in a potentially lucrative market. Whether the game made a lasting impact on the locals remains to be seen.
Casey Kreiter, a long snapper for the Denver Broncos, was suitably impressed.
“Its even more violent than I thought,” Kreiter said.
Another interested onlooker was Russell Crowe. The Hollywood star was at the game but refused to promote it, his club South Sydney among the most vocal opponents of the event.
This was rugby league, American style. The pre-game entertainment consisted of dogs chasing frisbees, while the Broncos Brass blew their horns before the whistle was blown. The game ball was delivered by the Denver Broncos Skydiving Team (yes, thats a thing) and the Denver Outlaws dancers shimmied during the few stoppages.
It was a free-flowing affair. The Kiwis shot out to a 12-0 lead and it appeared they would give new coach Michael Maguire the perfect start. But the unlikeliest hero emerged. Jake Connor, known predominantly as a right centre at Hull FC, changed the course of the match when he came off the interchange bench in the halves. He scored a try and set up two others in a brilliant cameo. Elliott Whitehead was the other standout in a powerhouse performance.
Proving that altitude indeed was a factor, Issac Luke kicked out on the full. Twice. When Jamayne Isaako did likewise in the second half, Gareth Widdop attempted a penalty goal from halfway. It never looked like missing.
It was pointless trying to earn repeat sets. The in-goals were about five metres deep and the ball scorched across the perfectly manicured Sports Authority Field turf.
When Maguire arrived at South Sydney, he appointed five captains. He has taken a different tack at international level, deciding not to appoint a New Zealand skipper. The teams final training session at Sports Authority Field was a captains run in name only. Luke, in what he hinted could be his final Test, led the side onto the field and in the haka. He was involved in plenty of the action, including a couple of try assists and a 40-20. However, he was lucky to remain on the field after appearing to intentionally stomp on the hand of John Bateman.
Esan Marsters was among the best for the vanquished. The Wests Tigers centre scored the first try and threatened on several occasions, justifying Wayne Bennetts decision to pick him ahead of Jordan Kahu.
Had this been an NRL game, Martin Taupau – under the tweaked sin-bin laws for foul play – would have spent 10 minutes off the field. The Sea Eagles enforcer hit England half Jonny Lomax in the back well after he had passed the football. The game changed when Connor replaced him.
That the game went ahead is testament to the players and the promoter. The NRL and its clubs were at their obstructionist best. Some clubs encouraged their best not to board the plane, a stance that hurt the Kiwis the most. The un-injured Warriors trio of Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tohu Harris may yet rue their decision not to be a part of history.
At least they will be slightly fresher for Fridays clash with Cronulla.
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.
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