Alex Yoxall, a rugby league fanatic, recaps his day at the Challenge Cup semi-final double header…
Sunday marked a historic day in the Challenge Cup as the University of Bolton stadium played host to a semi-final double header.
The event had the potential to mark itself as a regular in the Rugby League calendar alongside the Magic Weekend and the two respective Challenge Cup and Super League Grand Finals. I mean, who doesn’t love the sound of a festival like league event at the peak of summer? I was one of the 26,000+ who had the privilege to purchase a ticket to the sell-out event, so what did I make of the spectacle?
Well, I awoke with that special tingle of excitement that one might feel on the day of a final or for some even Christmas. The mixture of an exceptional weather forecast, an impressive 3/4 of the season and a potential return to the coveted Challenge Cup Final for my boyhood club was just too much to downplay. Luckily, myself and my father decided to head off to the game nice and early – arriving in the stadium’s vicinity at roughly 11am. This decision turned out to be an excellent one, as many people found themselves victim to terrible matchday traffic. Maybe because it was a Sunday that some people met this with shock horror, instead expecting the roads to be relatively clear. From knowledge of the area I knew that the roads surrounding the ground often found themselves full up in the lead up to kick-off, so thankfully no disaster befell us. However, some people I spoke too missed the kick off by 10 minutes – some even giving up and going home.
I find this a deep shame, especially when I read many people slating the event and obviously the RFL for choosing the venue. But in all honesty, I think the location was great. At least in strictly Rugby League terms. In any stadium that draws in 26,000, not to mention the fact here fans from four teams congregated – there will be traffic issues. You see it at Old Trafford when the Grand Final arrives and don’t get me started on the horrific deadlocks you find yourself in at Wembley, but that doesn’t take away from the spectacle on the field and the value the event has to the wider game. The stadium was, I thought, impressive. A brilliantly tendered field ready to host the greatest game of all, impressive views from the highest stands and an atmosphere that rivals any stadium I have been to for Rugby League. So to knock the event and the RFL for the poor traffic is not acceptable for me. They may get plenty wrong and they rightly should be pulled up on a lot of it, but here they have got something right.
Now at the stadium, we decided to do a lap of the ground (I say decided, in reality we circled around the wrong way looking for our stand) and what we found was a festival like atmosphere. Local pubs filled to the rafters with rival fans sharing pints in the glorious sun, large grass banks littered with picnicking spectators and fanzone-esque entertainment in the forms of parlour games and cheerleaders – it all added up to make a genuinely pleasant pre-game experience. Once inside the ground, we made our way to our seats in the upper section of the north stand and wow! What a view. We worried beforehand that the view would be poor due to the area we chose, but that couldn’t have been further from reality. The stadium began to fill up nicely for the first game, St Helens v Catalans – the St Helens following being the louder of the bunch at this moment (yet Catalans did themselves a great deal of justice).
The game itself, as a St Helens lad, was tough to take. An impressive season so far possibly made the result harder to take. A disastrous first half was enough to allow me to accept that a Wembley trip to see my boyhood club was not on the cards – even despite a much improved second. This being just one of a handful of losses this year I believe there will be plenty more to enjoy for Saints fans in 2018. It is disappointing, yes, but maybe a blessing in disguise that stops latter season fatigue as well as acting as a reality check that we are not lightyears ahead of our opposition, as some would have you believe.
As a sports writer, however, it was the next verse of a beautifully poised fairytale swansong for the French outfit. From the million pound game to the Challenge Cup final in just a year is nothing short of remarkable – all the credit must lie at the Dragons ‘feet. They dominated the majority of proceedings and took their chances well, allowing them their first chance at the historic silverware since their 2007 final appearance.
With one game down, I quite expected to see the Saints end fully disperse, especially after such a disappointing game. But much to my pleasant surprise many decided to stay. Without danger of bias, the Saints fans stood up and clapped their team who have been exceptional up until this day. So, I too stayed to watch the second game – quietly relaxed now as I viewed as a neutral. The Wolves team pushed Saints to the brink the previous week and despite a past the hooter penalty loss, they went into the game on top form. Leeds on the reverse have stuttered all season, yet entered this fixture knowing they are 80 minutes away from another shot at glory.
The first half delivered a relatively close encounter. Both teams enjoying spells with the ball, in which they both looked dangerous. Warrington however having an extra cutting edge that saw them leading 20-6 at half time. The second half continued to swing in the Wolves favour, with plenty of great tries leading them to another Wembley appearance. The rhinos lacking the consistency and cutting edge needed at this stage of the competition – the same issues that have lead them to another Qualifiers appearance. If Catalans Dragons are to be heralded for their fairytale rags to riches story – the Rhinos have displayed the exact opposite, going from being champions to relegation fighters in the same amount of time. There are certainly some potentially ground-breaking stories to follow in the coming weeks.
Overall, I think the semi-final spectacle – as a fan – was a success. Rugby League flourishes in summer just as much as it shines in Magic Weekend styled events. The brilliant atmosphere and more than capable hosting stadium showed that what was previously a lacklustre pre-final occasion, can now be an excitable show in itself. I personally hope that this becomes a staple in the calendar, if not in Bolton, somewhere else. The RFL take stick for plenty but here, they are have got it right.