Inside Rugby League: Memorable Challenge Cup final on many levels – Peter Smith

Wembley rugby league statue.
Wembley rugby league statue.
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OKAY, SO it wasn’t a great Challenge Cup final. Too one-sided for that.

But as an occasion, last Saturday was memorable, for a number of reasons.

There was much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth after the game itself went the way almost everybody expected it to.

It was first versus 10th in Super League and class and experience told.

Pre-match, the expectation was Leeds would be too fast and strong and have too much big-game know-how for Hull KR – and so it proved.

A 50-0 scoreline isn’t ideal in a Cup final, but 20 years ago Leeds played Wigan in a Premiership decider and were embarrassed 69-12.

Hull KR will need to look at how they played and where to go from here as a team, but from the sport’s point of view, it happens, get over it.

The usual talk that fans new to the game would be put off by such a rout is nonsense.

Wigan won eight successive Challenge Cup finals in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were fully professional and the rest were part-time and their performances drew only admiration and acclaim from the wider public.

Both semi-finals were cracking contests and casual viewers last weekend will have been impressed by Tom Briscoe’s tries, Jamie Peacock’s determination and Adam Cuthbertson’s off-loading, rather than turned off by how poor Hull KR were. It’s only rugby league fans who regard it as a crisis if a team wins by more than a couple of scores. It’s the same people who complain if the usual teams get to final every year.

Last weekend was another argument for moving the final forward to April or May. Rhinos played Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and Hull between the semi-final and final. Rovers’ pre-Wembley Qualifiers ties were against Leigh Centurions, Halifax and Widnes Vikings. They weren’t anything like as battle-hardened as Leeds were, which is something Rhinos coach Brian McDermott pointed out afterwards.

Playing the final in spring, well before the competition splits, would give teams from lower down the table more chance of competing on the big stage.

It was Ladbrokes’ first final and they pulled out the stops.

Branding was everywhere, including outside the tube stadium at the end of Wembley Way, and, for the first time in a while, it felt like a big event.

Rovers’ fans may have gone home unhappy, but they got behind their team and stayed there for the duration, which made for a cracking atmosphere, though – sadly – the number of neutrals attending the final seems to be falling. Lizzie Jones’ rendition of Abide With Me provided a lasting memory and the annual Steven Mullaney Memorial match – the Year 7 boys’ curtain-raiser – was, yet again, won by a team from outside the sport’s traditional heartlands, Cardiff’s Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf playing some outstanding rugby to beat Wade Deacon, of Widnes, 40-6.

Rugby league is alive and well outside the M62 corridor.

Hull KR’s line-up, it’s worth pointing out, included two Frenchmen and a Londoner.

It’s ironic that rugby league’s new Wembley statue was unveiled before the second successive all-Yorkshire final.

It features Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy, Gus Risman, Billy Boston and Eric Ashton and is an outstanding work of art, but devalued by the lack of a Yorkshire presence.

Neil Fox, the world record points scorer, should have been included.

The statue was opened by sports minister Tracy Crouch, who was a reasonably prestigious chief guest at the final and spoke glowingly about the sport in her pre-unveiling speech.

But if players at big games are going to be escorted on to the pitch by young mascots, it would be better if the dignitaries didn’t pretend they aren’t there.

Crouch and the pre-match presentation party shook hands with the players, but not the youngsters standing in front of them – which looked plain rude. That’s not a big issue, but it’s something worth sorting out for next time.