A few years ago, it was being played in small leisure centres or even on car parks, with nobody watching. This afternoon a crowd of 2,311 turned up at Leeds’ First Direct Arena to see England take on France in a rematch of last year’s World Cup final.
The result went the other way this time, France winning 43-34 but it was a terrific game and occasion, broadcast live on BBC 2 and the feeling inside the venue was rugby league is on to something special.
It’s fast, furious and the collisions are huge. Within the first seven minutes, both sets of posts had been felled in massive collisions and a wheel was ripped off England star Seb Bechara’s chair.
The crowd, many watching the sport for the first time, got into it from the start and by the time France received their ninth penalty of the first half, a chorus of boos rang around the arena, aimed at referee David Butler, a sure sign a rugby league crowd is invested in the occasion. Incidentally, the penalties levelled up in the second period and eventually finished 11-9 in France’s favour.
England were their own worst enemy as France powered into a 30-6 lead, but pride was restored in a thrilling second period. In the first 40 the hosts conceded too many penalties, twice knocked on in good field position and their errors were ruthlessly punished.
England got off to a cracking start with a fifth minute try by Rob Hawkins, from a pass by Leeds Rhinos’ Tom Halliwell. Joe Coyd added the extras, but France scored the next four tries before two in as many minutes either side of half-time got the home side back in the game.
Player of the match Jeremy Bourson crossed twice for France in the opening 40, Damian Dore touched down and Lionel Alazard got the other. He converted them all and landed three penalties.
On the final play of the half, England received their fourth penalty - to loud cheers - and Coyd dummied over for a try which another Leeds man, Nathan Collins, improved.
Another penalty led to England’s third touchdown straight after the interval, Lewis King crossing from a brilliant pass by substitute Jack Brown, who had just come on. Collins converted again to make it 30-18.
England would have been in touching distance if Halliwell had been able to get the ball down over the line moments later, but he knocked on and France scored in the subsequent set through Yann Verdi, though the crowd felt the pass was forward.
Alazard maintained his 100 per cent kicking record, but England stuck at it and Collins crossed for an unconverted try from another Brown pass. A drop goal by Florian Guttadoro and Bourson’s hat-trick try, which Dore converted, made it 43-22, but Halliwell dummied over, King scored his second and two Collins goals cut the gap to just nine points with 15 minutes left.
England threw everything at France after that, but the visitors held on for a narrow, but deserved victory. It’s a cliche, but wheelchair rugby league was the real winner.
England: Halliwell, Hawkins, Coyd, Bechara, King. Subs Collins, Brown, Butler.
France: Alazard, Bourson, Zittel, Dore, Guttadoro. Subs Vargas, Penella, Verdi.
Referees: David Butler and Matthew Ball.