TOMORROW NIGHT’S Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final is an opportunity for rugby league.
It will be the first time a Challenge Cup last-four tie has been staged on a Friday evening and, predictably, that hasn’t been well received by everyone.
The M62 on that particular day of the week resembles a car park as much as it does a motorway and it will mean fans, particularly those from Leeds, rushing after work or having to take time off.
But looking at the bigger picture, it is a chance to showcase rugby league to a new audience. The game will be televised live on BBC2 and is likely to attract a different viewing public to matches on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.
Apparently, there will be an announcement at the end of EastEnders on Friday evening urging viewers to switch over to the rugby league and in terms of a spectacle, Leeds against St Helens is the ideal game. They currently hold the major domestic honours, are the top two in Super League and the elite division’s highest scorers.
Tomorrow will be the latest in a series of semi-finals between the teams in the summer era and three of them – 2001, 2003 and 2010 – were classic encounters. The sides are in form and some of the code’s best-known players will be on show. There are no concerns about the entertainment on the field, but rugby league won’t come across well if a small venue like Warrington’s HJ Stadium is anything other than packed to the rafters.
The RFL have moved away from choosing big stadiums for semi-finals. Crowds in recent years have been poor and the thinking now is to select a middle-sized ground with a capacity of between 10-15,000, so the atmosphere comes across well on television and it looks reasonably full.
Last year only 12,132 turned up at St Helens’ Langtree Park, on a Saturday afternoon, to watch Leeds against Warrington Wolves, so switching to a Friday night isn’t really a huge gamble on the RFL’s part.
Rhinos fans feel hard done by because they are having to visit their opponents’ backyard for a second successive season, but before last year, Leeds had a run of seven semi-finals all played in Yorkshire, so they can’t grumble too much. The fact Rhinos supporters are having to pay £25 to stand tomorrow is more of an issue. They have been allocated the terrace parallel to the touchline, which is considered to be one of the best vantage points at HJ Stadium.
So Leeds fans are paying an extra £5 to get a better view. The seats opposite, allocated to Saints, also cost £25, with Leeds supporters paying £20 to sit behind the posts, the same amount rival supporters will fork out to stand at the other end.
It will take an effort to get over to Warrington tomorrow and it’s easier and potentially cheaper to watch the game at home or in the pub. But Cup semi-finals are often close and can come down to a moment of magic, a mistake or a referee’s decision and fans of both teams will have a part to play.
Referee Ben Thaler will be in charge at the HJ, with Richard Silverwood in the middle for Saturday’s second semi-final between Hull KR and Warrington Wolves. Silverwood and Phil Bentham have monopolised major finals since 2010, as this column has regularly pointed out and it is good that another official is at least putting some pressure on for this year’s Wembley.
Bentham was referee at Castleford last weekend when Warrington’s Ben Westwood escaped punishment for a challenge which resulted in Luke Gale spending time in hospital, and it would be interesting to know if that was a factor. Tigers weren’t happy about the Grade B charge issued to Westwood, which carried a maximum two-match ban. As surprising was the explanation for Catalans’ Ben Garcia escaping without suspension for a dangerous throw on Rhinos’ Kylie Leuluai: “Other tackler’s actions part of problem.” Nobody else was charged over the incident.
Westwood is still on course to play in the final.
Hull KR are low on form and confidence and it’s hard to make a case for them winning this weekend.