This Saturday will mark the end of the line for arguably the greatest rugby player of either code. For the previous two Saturdays he has lead his country to successive victories, including a successful return to an old haunt. Back in 1997, a fresh-faced 20-year-old Darren Lockyer played at the old Wembley on his first overseas tour alongside the likes of Laurie Daley in the Super League Test series against a Great Britain team featuring Jason Robinson, among others. Now 14 years on, with a cabinet full of trophies and with numerous domestic and international honours to his name, Lockyer returned to the new Wembley and lead Australia to a 36-20 win over England in the this year’s Four Nations.
It is 39 years since the national Rugby League team last took a trophy off Australia. Such has the dominance of the Antipodeans been that since Great Britain lifted the 1972 World Cup in France, rarely has international rugby league carried much intrigue for the paying public. The first half of the 1990’s ensured a revival in the international game when the last impressive Great Britain team featuring Shaun Edwards and Jonathan Davies won one of the first three Tests in three consecutive Ashes series and had the mighty Aussies genuinely worried. The 1995 World Cup brought with it 100 years of Rugby League and in the opening match England defeated Australia before losing in the final three weeks later.
Rupert Murdoch’s intervention into British Rugby League in 1996 was then heralded as the necessary boost to advance the northern hemisphere into pole position. The unprecedented financial injection allowed the leading clubs to employ players on a full-time basis, a luxury that had previously been enjoyed only by Wigan and a couple of their less well-run rivals. This £87 million however, achieved relatively little. The major defections from League to Union that had been widespread previously to this, tailed off due to equality in wages. The supposed shift in power at the top of the game never materialised though.
In 2000, another World Cup was staged in Britain but it was met with universal disapproval. There were too many mismatches in the early stages, and some of the teams lacked credibility. Notably the inclusion of a side representing New Zealand’s M?ori population, Aotearoa M?ori, alongside the full New Zealand team, and a Lebanon side consisting entirely of Australians of Lebanese origin, led to derisory comments in the media. The Australians won it, again, while the home nations fell in the semi-finals. That final hinged on a moment of magic by one man, he will retire on Saturday after this year's Four Nations final, probably with another trophy to fill his cabinet. Darren Lockyer has been the thorn in British Rugby League’s side for 14 years; there is a feeling that he’s not quite finished yet.