Kangaroos stars Jarryd Hayne, Sam Thaiday, Nate Myles and Johnathan Thurston pose for a happy snap with a fan ahead of their opening World Cup match against England. Credit: NRL.com Copyright: NRL.com
The Rugby League World Cup kicked off in Wales – horseback police escorts, Dr Who aliens, Kangaroo onesies, electric harps and all.
It's rugby league all right, but possibly not how you know it.
It is not every day that rugby league is played in Wales, let alone two international fixtures on the same night including less traditional nations Wales and Italy.
The trip from the Kangaroos hotel to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium is a 10-minute stroll through a sprawling shopping hub, so when the team bus got ready to take the team to the game it all seemed rather familiar.
The police escort to the ground is customary for sporting teams, but this was a little different. The police escort for this occasion was not the standard affair of motorbikes. Not by a long shot.
Two police officers saddled on horseback led the way, with the bus following at a crawl behind as the two mares broke out into a trot. Spectators watched on, cheered and booed as the bus made the short journey to Millennium Stadium.
This is not the NRL, and was not just another ordinary day in rugby league.
The start of the Rugby League World Cup in Cardiff under a closed roof was quite a spectacle; two international fixtures with vastly different storylines but both equally important.
The English, trying to establish themselves as a powerhouse of rugby league and attempting to step out of the shadow of their opponents Australia; while Wales hosted Italy with the future of the international game needing these countries to embrace and develop these non-traditional rugby league areas.
When the full-time siren rang after Australia had held on to a 28-20 victory over England, both teams walked around the field together to salute the fans. It had been a physical game of Test Match rugby league,but both teams walked around together acknowledging the fans, some swapping jerseys as they went.
It was a credit to both teams.
The Kangaroos team song was sung without their captain Cam Smith.
Following the game, Smith had been the last player to leave the field, not unusual for Smith (more on that later), and he was then taken into a room to fulfil his duties for the post-match wrap-up for the host broadcaster.
An excited Australia team celebrated their win and then started the team song… and unbeknownst to anyone in the sheds their captain was not with them.
Speaking of the captain, he is well known for being tardy when it comes to his post-match routine. When most of the team had already taken photos for social media celebrating the win with teammates, stretched, removed all their strapping, showered, put their suits on and were ready to leave, there was Captain Smith sitting comfortably in his Kangaroos speedos, beer in hand, soaking in the victory.
It was pretty clear he was going nowhere.
Greg Bird and Robbie Farah had already changed and were watching the Wales v Italy match from the tunnel. Farah was riding every play as if it were his own team, cheering on former teammates in the Italian line-up when they scored three unanswered tries to win.
While that was happening, Bird had spotted a fan in a Kangaroo onesie sitting near the sideline and was trying his best to convince them to swap with him. A straight swap for official Kangaroos trackpants and the shirt off his back was offered and turned down. Bird even threw in a 20 pound incentive to sweeten the deal, but alas he left the ground in his official Kangaroos kit, empty handed.
With the team tired of waiting for their captain, they picked up their gear and headed for the exit. Smith was still in his speedos and settling in, beer in hand.
While it is customary for the full squad to get on the team bus to drive back to the hotel, that could have taken another hour the way Smith was going. So the team and coaching staff, dressed in their official blazers, left Millennium Stadium and walked up the ramp and back to the hotel through a crowd of fans and interested onlookers.
A trail of Kangaroos led the way past the quizzical looks of bystanders, through the heart of Cardiff's CBD to the team hotel.
This was not your ordinary night of rugby league, not by a long shot.
Smith did eventually make his way out of the Millennium Stadium inner sanctum and back to the hotel, over an hour after the team had departed.
Had it not been for the stadium staff needing to clean up, he might have stayed all night.