It’s turned out nice again for rugby league. An extended weekend built on hype justified the hot air, and there was plenty of it before a ball had been brought into play, at Wigan and Leigh, especially.
There was barely time for the match at the DW, what with Ben Flower’s every move under intense scrutiny – and that was before he had taken his tracksuit top off – and the ‘big announcement’ at half time.
The sport needs both stories, crowds are currently static at best and interest-enhancing column inches were found on the back of them.
Yes, the fixation with Flower on his return after a self-inflicted six months out was bordering on the voyeuristic and the ‘I wonder what the announcement can be’ lead up to the face of Samkins on the big screen almost treating the bulk of the audience with contempt, but the impact made more than outweighed the slight discomfort felt.
Flower put in a credible stint with 23 tackles and no misses and seemed calm and focussed under the most intense pressure and, no doubt, fatigue. Most commendably, he came out afterwards and declared he did not deserve the standing ovation he was given on entry because his original actions had let everyone down. Take that football.
Sam may not have been the best kept secret, he’d even trailed it on New Zealand radio, but to see the reaction of unconstrained joy by Wigan fans of all ages on the terraces when his move back was confirmed was hugely heart-warming and definitely worth £200,000 of Ian Lenegan’s money.
Even the impending departure of terrifically back to form Joe Burgess was assuaged by another thrilling display from scoring sensation Dom Manfredi.
The announcement of the re-joining of the Tomkins clan certainly seemed to bring the best out of Joel who was superb as Warrington suffered their fifth defeat in six as the competition hits half-way and all have now played each other.
Half backs have to fire in the big games and Declan Patton will have learned more in defeat than he did on an 80-0 winning debut, that shellacking of the Wildcats turning out to have a detrimental effect for Tony Smith’s men when faced with the greater intensity of the Warriors, for whom George Williams seemed increasingly assured.
Youngsters also took the eye at St Helens the following night with Ash Handley matching Manfredi’s feat and Leeds’s ultimately emphatic victory masterminded by Liam Sutcliffe in his best 80 minutes in the blue and amber.
Two interceptions and a late score from a dropped ball inflated the margin but there was a ruthlessness at the start about the Rhinos that is normally associated with Saints. The crucial try was the one just before the break with St Helens having got a lifeline from Tommy Makinson’s astonishing presence of mind to turn a fumble into four points.
With seconds remaining, Kallum Watkins showed similar intelligence not to panic when he almost went the length of the field on an interception, leaving Sutcliffe one play to fashion an exquisite kick to the corner for Handley’s third with vision and precision that Kevin Sinfield would have been proud of.
That the Leeds skipper began on the bench for the first time in 12 seasons was a testament to the continually underestimated man-management skills of his coach Brian McDermott and the all-for-one ethic the Sinfield-inspired era has lived by.
For Saints, Luke Walsh’s pep brought a kitchen sink throwing revival, which the Rhinos gained equal kudos for ultimately repelling; and the excellent Alex Walmsley has signed a new contract to keep him out of NRL clutches.
Nothing is won in April.
The focus for the bulk of the rest of the weekend was the Challenge Cup and, particularly, the four ‘middle eight rehearsal’ ties.
All eyes were on Leigh on Saturday afternoon and if their terrific triumph over Salford says anything, it is that we need to find the wherewithal for more full time teams.
What was most refreshing about the Centurions was the refusal to compromise their cavalier attacking style, so often reined in for knockout rugby. Paul Rowley’s men, infused with the confidence of continually winning and backed by a fervent atmosphere, played to their strengths irrespective of the opposition.
They, like Leeds, have backs who love to entertain and, appropriately as the sport’s 120th anniversary celebrations were unveiled in the lead up, served a reminder of all that makes the game so watchable.
Leigh had the necessary physicality that comes with being full time and they infused the Cup with some of its lost romance. Salford, by dint of injury – Wayne Godwin’s genuinely surprise return somewhat overshadowed by Sam’s – and the loss of Michael Dobson compromising them, but they were hanging in until an injudicious offload snaffled up by Ryan Brierley that swung the momentum.
At Bradford, where the other full time Championship side tested itself for later battles, Bulls coach James Lowes came up with the most pertinent comments. “Hopefully the players will see that some of the errors you can get away with in the Championship and the decisions you make, you can’t against quality opposition. The lads have got a clearer picture of what it takes to play against a good Super League team; you need to be clinical, the better sides will take the opportunities you give them,” he said.
Where full time faced part time, there was no less effort but not the uncertainty of outcome craved.
The UAE seems to be a burgeoning place for the sport. Not only is there a four-team, Nissan sponsored cup in the region that began this weekend – with victories for Xodus Wasps and Abu Dhabi Harlequins – but Dubai Sports City will host the one-off 2017 World Cup Qualifier for the Middle East Africa region between South Africa and Lebanon in October, and they are planning an audacious bid to host the full 2021 World Cup.
The broadest smiles are in Leigh the morning after.