Cup finals can give rugby league a revitalising shot in arm – Peter Smith
IF EVER rugby league needed a good Wembley, it’s now.
A sport battered and bruised by Covid is in serious need of a pick-me-up, which a couple of classic matches this weekend could provide.
The Challenge Cup final is the game’s annual opportunity to showcase what it is all about to a wider audience; one day when casual viewers, without any real interest in rugby league, will tune into the BBC’s coverage and it’s therefore an opportunity to make friends and influence people.
The two games being staged on Saturday – the Challenge Cup and 1895 Cup finals – have a lot riding on them because, at the moment, it feels like the code is in the doldrums.
The number of Betfred Super League matches postponed – or even called off – recently has harmed the integrity of the competition, as has the fixture congestion of the past couple of weeks.
Some of that is an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, but the scheduling of matches has also been a self-inflicted wound, most notably the decision to hold a full Super League round at or around the same time as an England international.
Events over the past few weeks have shown how an England team’s performances can grip the nation.
While the rugby league World Cup isn’t on the same scale as football’s European Championships, it is still an opportunity for the sport to get itself noticed. Sadly, by making players turn out five times in 15 days, the game’s administrators are actually damaging the national team’s chances at this autumn’s tournament.
When fans were allowed back into stadiums, towards the end of May, opinion was divided over whether they would have got out of the habit, or flock back in their droves, desperate for a long overdue fix.
Unfortunately, the former seems to have been the case.
Even with capacities restricted to 4,000, some clubs are struggling to sell out.
Ideally, all games should be for home fans only at this stage of coronavirus restrictions, but the presence of away supporters is an indication of why the inclusion of teams in France – or Canada – is so feared by some clubs. Even with a 45,000 limit at Wembley tickets are still available for this weekend’s 1895 Cup and Betfred Challenge Cup double-header, though apparently only in limited numbers and not on the day of the game.
Anything less than a sell-out would be a blow but, while both games pit an in-form team against one playing well below its best, two intriguing matches are in prospect.
The 1895 Cup curtain-raiser sees Featherstone Rovers playing at Wembley for the first time since 1983, against opposition in York City Knights whose last and only appearance there was 90 years ago.
Rovers are unbeaten by second-tier opposition this year and playing outstanding rugby.
York have gone off the boil in 2021, but have enough quality – and past Wembley experience in the likes of Adam Cuthbertson and Chris Clarkson – to make a game of it, so it may not be the mismatch the form lines suggest.
The same goes for the main event, when Castleford Tigers square up to St Helens.
Having lost 60-6 to Leeds Rhinos the week before their semi-final win over Warrington Wolves, Tigers were crushed 70-18 by Salford Red Devils in their last game ahead of Wembley.
The semi-final was one of only two wins from Tigers’ last eight matches and, because of Covid and injuries, key members of their likely Cup-final team are lacking match practice. Saints have more big-game experience, better form and fewer injuries, but hot favourites have slipped up before and Castleford showed in the semi-final they are capable of pulling a performance out of the bag.
Their build-up is a little reminiscent of Hull KR’s in 2015, before they were hammered 50-0 by Rhinos and, if the result isn’t a narrow Castleford win, it’s likely to be a big Saints one.
But sometimes ‘a team’s name is on the Cup’ from the start of the competition and earlier results suggest that might be the case for Tigers this time.
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