1. Lavish Leeds
Just how good is this Leeds team? And can they be stopped? The Rhinos were magnificent in their performance against St Helens on Friday night in one of the best Cup games in recent memory. The way Leeds stretched Saints, offloading at will, playing with pure pace, running their opposition ragged, it’s rugby league at its finest. Their attack is truly something to behold, their depth in both the forwards and backs difficult to combat. How they dismantled St Helens, the defending champions who did the double in 2014 and are bloody good team themselves as well, was mesmerizing.
Saints were heroic in fighting back from going behind 18-4 and putting some real pressure on. Andre Savelio was outstanding along with James Roby. But the Rhinos were a cut above, especially ageless prop Jamie Peacock, who pulled out an audacious step that would make Matty Bowen in his prime blush. Leeds have now beaten St Helens three times this year and look to have their number. They will be near impossible to stop in the Challenge Cup, even without veteran Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Hats off to Brian McDermott and his men.
2. Flying Robins
Friday’s Cup semi-final wasn’t just a classic but Saturday’s was as well. Not many people were tipping a Hull KR win at Headingley and with good reason. The Robins came into the match in the middle of a four-game losing streak, preparing to fight against relegation in The Qualifiers. Low on confidence, they had been spanked by Saints 52-12 the week before. Rumours have been circulating about Chris Chester’s future. Without key half Terry Campese, and with his scrumbase partner Albert Kelly seemingly on one leg, surely they didn’t have a chance in hell. Warrington also have a great Cup pedigree and Hull KR haven’t been in a final since 1986. Throw in Warrington’s excellent form – winning three of their past four in Super League, including a spanking of Castleford – and a Wolves victory was on the cards it seemed. But nobody told the Robins.
KR were 6-0 down early in the piece, not long after kick off, and they looked to be grimly hanging on. But the game changed in the space of two minutes, tries to Josh Mantellato and a fantastic leap from Ken Sio had the Robins in front. They kicked on in the second half as Warrington lost their composure and several troops to injury. The defence of the Red and Whites was immense; they just threw everything they had into felling wave after wave of Wire attacks. What an afternoon for Hull KR who have waited nearly 30 years to get into another decider at Wembley. The Robins fans were at Headingley in numbers and they were rewarded with a special performance.
Hull KR’s 2015 has been a yo-yo, you never know which way it will go next. They will need to play the 80 minutes of their lives to beat Leeds on August 29, but sport has a way of throwing up the unpredictable and the unbelievable. Congrats to the Robins for breaking up the big four and booking a seat at London’s big party.
3. Brilliant Beeb
It was great to have rugby league back on the BBC and especially in Friday night prime-time. And it was great to have two quality matches to show, two games filled with drama, suspense and pure entertainment. The value of having rugby league back on free-to-air cannot be underestimated. It has the power to draw in casual fans and to convert newcomers to the sport that don’t have access to Sky. Roughly 1.3 million people tuned in for Friday’s spectacle, an awesome return for one of the best games this season.
Sky does a good job broadcasting Super League and this is no attack on them. But as a pay-TV provider their reach is limited and there is something about the BBC’s coverage, no matter what the sport, that makes a telecast a little bit special. Maybe it’s the history, or the attention to detail or the professionalism. Maybe it’s just the staff they use, the mixture of personalities or the knowledge that they bring. Whatever it is, full credit to them. The public broadcaster brought a new dimension to their telecast and significantly added to the spectacle. Wouldn’t it be great to have rugby league on the BBC regularly again, perhaps Championship games for the 2016 season. With Premier Sports moving away from the Championship and Sky showing little appetite to broadcast the competition, something needs to be done to better showcase more of our product to the masses. A bit of Beeb magic could go a long way.
4. Supering the Super 8s
Last Wednesday the RFL launched the new Super 8s with a media event at the BBC Studios in Manchester’s MediaCity. A fine location and a good turnout for the event, despite a handful of clubs choosing to send only injured players, or to not send their coaches. To properly promote Super League you need a buy-in from both the media and the clubs, and on the whole that was the case.
The revamped competition has its critics, some that are quite legitimate. For example, the chances of Catalans progressing to the grand final now from the Super 8s are somewhere between nothing and zero. Pretty much ditto Hull FC. But overall the new competition has been win-win and increased interest and excitement.
The pressure on Salford and Wakefield, the threat of Leigh and the return of Bradford, the emergence of Sheffield and Halifax, there is a lot to savour in the Middle 8s. Personally I’m more excited to see the Centurions do battle with Hull KR and Widnes then seeing, say Hull FC take on Catalans in the Super 8s. The Middle 8s are where it’s at and where the most exciting, nail-biting games should be played. Leeds and St Helens look too strong in the top tier, with perhaps Wigan poised to do something special and knock one of them out. But in the Qualifiers there is a lot to play for: relegation and promotion. There is also a lot closer gap between all of the teams. These games should be fascinating. It’s lovely to see Sky broadcasting the clashes on Saturday afternoons and hopefully the likes of the Eagles and Fax can post big crowds for the visits of Super League opponents like Widnes and the Robins. An upset or two will do wonders for the new changes.
5. Marshall’s magic
Halifax’s Richard Marshall has to be a contender for coach of the year this year after leading his team into the Middle 8s. Fax finished third in 2014 and managed a fourth place, only two points behind third-placed Sheffield, this year. But with Bradford and London coming into the division, not to mention the financial power of the likes of Featherstone, it was a great result and few would have predicted Halifax grabbing a spot in The Qualifiers. A lot of credit has to go to Marshall, the former Warrington assistant and England Academy coach, who took over in September last year.
Once a player with London, Huddersfield, Leigh, Swinton and Fax, Marshall has done a great job at the Shay since replacing Karl Harrison. A level-headed and articulate figure, under Marshall Halifax have won its past nine matches in a row. The 39-year old has got his team flying and full of confidence coming into this new league. Marshall is not buying into the added hype but he and Halifax are clearly a club on the up. Fax know they have work to do to be ready for Super League and to become a regular force year-in-year-out. Marshall told me: “Infrastructure-wise we’re probably a little bit behind where we need to be. So next year we’re going to focus on the infrastructure of the club. Our sponsorship, our media activities, everything we do, getting a reserve grade, so building solid foundations to push this club forward. We’ve got to have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is Super League, Plan B is we’ve done really well this year, let’s build for next year.”
Marshall is adamant that his team isn’t in The Qualifiers to make up the numbers and deserve to be in with a chance to get into Super League. Now is the time for Halifax and their talented young coach to prove it. Widnes at home on August 9 is a tough initiation and one that could tell a lot about the next six weeks.