Five things: Cup magic, special Leigh and uncomfortable about Hardaker

Neil Barraclough

One – Could it be magic?

What a brilliant weekend for the Challenge Cup – apart from one issue, which we’ll come to later.

Castleford and Leigh, two of the unlikeliest names at the start of the season, produced performances that hit back at those who now decry the competition every year for ‘losing its magic’.

The Tigers were utterly terrific at Wigan and will fancy their chances of seeing off Widnes to reach Wembley for the first time in 22 years.

We guess there’ll have been a few hangovers in the town on Sunday morning, but there could plenty more come August.

Kirk Dixon said: “The togetherness is fantastic. Everyone’s singing off the same hymn-sheet, the fans have been fantastic all year and hopefully we can do them proud.”


Two – Leigh-ding by example

Leigh were the first to conjure something special when they went to Headingley on Friday night.

How close they were to the biggest Challenge Cup upset since Sheffield’s exploits 16 years ago.

And in a season where they’ve already set a new club record of consecutive victories, coach Paul Rowley continues to impress.

Asked whether he was satisfied Leigh had put the magic back in the Cup, Rowley said: “I’d have been more satisfied to be getting to Wembley.

“That sounds ridiculous and you might all walk out and shake your head, but if you don’t believe in what you’re doing then you shouldn’t be here.

“Every fibre of me wanted to put my strongest team out and beat Leeds and we nearly did it – but nearly’s not good enough.”


Three – All Betts are off

Put down of the weekend goes to Denis Betts, who produced a quietly-delivered but devastating stinger to England boss Steve McNamara.

Widnes stand-off Kevin Brown was the shock omission from McNamara’s 34-man training squad.

Asked whether he was surprised, Betts simply said: “I didn’t actually read the England training squad, so I don’t know who’s in or who’s not.”

He added: “I think Kevin’s beyond it. He knows his form is his form. It’s very subjective and Steve, from the other side of the world, is taking advice and picking the team he wants to pick. Kevin can’t let it worry him and I don’t think it is at all.”


Four – Spreading the word

Elsewhere, two of the most significant results of the weekend came in Championship One, where the ‘expansion’ clubs are finding their feet.

Hemel Stags’ victory over Oldham was eye-catching enough, but news that Gloucestershire All Golds had seen off York was even more remarkable.

The other winners in that comp this week? South Wales and Gateshead. Not an M62 club in sight.


Five – Uncomfortable viewing

Finally, was anyone else uncomfortable watching Zak Hardaker play against Leigh?

It is nine days since Hardaker was broadcast using hugely offensive, homophobic language on national television.

He has issued an apology but, even when the RFL failed to complete their investigation within a week, Leeds could have sent a clear message by standing down their man. Instead a club that gets so much right got this one wrong.

Rugby league in the UK long ago made a choice to position itself as the most moralistic sport on these shores. Every game is preceded by announcements that “rugby league is a family game.”

On my last visit to Headingley, the man on the mic said: “Leeds do not tolerate abusive language, irresponsible drinking…” and a host of other misdemeanours.

Which is fine – but if you talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.

Only a long ban will send an appropriate message, but in allowing Hardaker to play on Friday night our fear is that a message – and the wrong one at that – has already been delivered.


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Follow Neil Barraclough on Twitter @neilbarraclough