THE MAJORITY of neutrals at Wembley last Saturday were supporting the underdogs, but few would really have begrudged Kevin Sinfield his coveted Challenge Cup winner’s medal.
The Leeds Rhinos skipper is one of the country’s greatest sportsmen in all senses of the word, and has now secured his place in the record books. The same applies to the likes of Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Ryan Bailey, who are confirmed as Leeds club legends.
Having secured the complete set of available honours over the past five years, the current group stand alone as Leeds’ most successful team and they deserve all the accolades heaped on them over the past few days.
Huge credit must go to Brian McDermott, the only Leeds coach to win the grand slam of Challenge Cup, Super League and World Club Challenge honours.
He has come in for much criticism during his four seasons in charge, but went into the Challenge Cup campaign with a plan and it worked to the letter.
Leeds’ tactics in the semi-final and the Wembley decider – a departure from their normal style of Champagne rugby – were spot on. The delight in Rhinos’ camp at the final whistle was obvious and proved the Challenge Cup is still a piece of silverware worth winning, at least for the teams involved in the final.
The downside of an otherwise uplifting afternoon was the large number of unoccupied red seats in the stadium, something which didn’t look good on the television coverage.
The actual attendance seemed lower than the 77,914 announced – possibly due to the largely unoccupied Club Wembley seats being included in the figure – and there seemed to be far fewer club jerseys on show this year.
The declining interest in the Challenge Cup final is a problem the RFL needs to address.
The opportunity to revive the competition by moving the final back to the spring has not been taken and the likelihood is that crowds will continue to fall, which is a shame for a competition which represents rugby league in the eyes of the general public.
Apart from that though, the sport rose to the occasion. There was a good atmosphere in the stadium and it was a decent game, though not the classic everyone hoped it would be.
That was largely down to the fact Rhinos, at last, came up with a Grand Final-type performance in August and Castleford failed to cope with the occasion, until the game was beyond them.
Two examples of on-field bravery are worth noting. Craig Huby played in Tigers’ front-row just 13 days after suffering a dislocated elbow in the semi-final win over Widnes Vikings.
It wasn’t a fairytale, he didn’t have a towering game, but he did himself and his coach justice. And Danny McGuire kicked the drop goal which confirmed Rhinos’ victory, after suffering a painful rib injury – and what at the time was feared might have been a punctured lung – late in the game.
On reflection, McGuire would have been an equally worthy winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, but Ryan Hall’s two tries were an astonishing display of finishing power.
The vote, as usual, was taken with around 10 minutes to go. Had the media been polled after McGuire’s one-pointer, he may well have won it. The Lance Todd Trophy is one of the most prestigious awards in the game and voting should be done at the end of the match.
IT WAS Rhinos’ day at Wembley, but Castleford Tigers will benefit from the experience, on and off the field.
There’s a saying you have to lose a final to win one and Tigers’ players will be better prepared the next time they appear in such a big game.
Having not reached a Challenge Cup final for 22 years, the Wembley build-up was also a valuable lesson for Tigers’ backroom staff, who put in long hours coping with the demand for tickets and merchandise and again, things will run smoother next time.
That’s part of the process of evolving as a club and certainly the progress Tigers have made over the last year, under the inspiring leadership of coach Daryl Powell and chief executive Steve Gill, above, has been remarkable.
The Cup run and the huge numbers who travelled from Castleford to the game proved the club is the heart of the town and it put both on the map.
For this reporter, a highlight of the weekend was watching Tigers players mingling with fans and posing for pictures outside Wembley a few hours before kick-off.
That would have been a better story if they had lifted the Cup, but their relaxed approach certainly won them a lot of new friends.