There was probably a world record set on Thursday night at Wakefield. Nothing to do with the playing feats of Wakefield and Wigan in what was an ultimately unedifying encounter, but for the use of the word ‘spirited’ to define the Wildcats’ performance in going down 40-22.
On the back of their 80-0 pasting at Warrington in the previous round, there were understandable concerns from broadcasters, especially, that there would be the likely prospect of a similar routing, which would hardly be a good look for the sport, especially in a lightly filled stadium.
But when Craig Hall, a player for whom the phrase enigmatic was invented, crossed at the end of the first set, it just showed how spirited Wakefield were.
Quickly 18-6 down, their response to be only six points behind at the break was spirited and, although they eventually went down by three clear scores, their performance was, at least, spirited.
It is difficult for that backdrop to sound anything other than patronising with an underlying subtext of, ‘phew, thank goodness, you weren’t quite as bad as we thought you’d be’ when the truth is they are two clubs are playing on completely different playing fields; which is, of course, not supposed to happen any more in the new era.
Wildcats’ real struggle – and, indeed, a bigger one than their on-field woes which haven’t come as a shock to them – is their battle for either a new or redeveloped ground that resurfaced over the weekend.
Developers at Newmarket, their proposed new site, have got on with the first phase of building while seemingly, along with the local council, forgetting that part of the deal was to build a community facility for the only team that carries the name of the city in professional sport to play at.
With politicians, locally and MPs, currently making all sorts of promises to ensure election, the Wildcats went on the offensive to remind them of their promises and responsibilities. With the right kind of leverage at such a sensitive time, it could be a master strategy to ensure that, instead, the cheaper – and better for many – option would be to buy back and upgrade Belle Vue.
If the club had an asset, rather than a drain on their already limited resources, they might even be able to put out a side that could be better than spirited.
Warrington’s fans were almost as entertaining as their players at Headingley Carnegie, coming out with two great chants about wanting to play Leeds every week – having inflicted two defeats on them and played their best rugby of the season against them – and that they weren’t now going down, in reference to their run of five defeats since last taming the Rhinos.
As much as the Wolves needed the win so as not to fall 12 points behind the leaders at just over the half way stage, with the top two being so important in the shortened play offs, so did the competition. Like with the Wildcats being cut adrift at the bottom, the season mantra of minutes mattering was in danger of being undermined if team at the top had disappeared over the hill.
Warrington’s speed of defensive line was superb and never lessened, disrupting the expansive game that has been the Rhinos calling card in 2015. The hosts, in front of another like-for-like record summer crowd, looked a little sluggish which is only to be expected and welcomed if the intensity promised by the competition is to have meaning.
Wolves coach Tony Smith, always one of the most engaging to listen to and learn from, also provided an answer to the question that has vexed many in the opening half of the pre-split rounds, does the log-jam in the middle mean that more minutes are mattering or is the standard much of a muchness and not as high as the table would indicate.
Asked if one of the factors contributing to their terrific performance was the luxury of an eight day turnaround and some decent preparation, he replied, “Absolutely. That’s a big part of why a lot of teams are struggling to find consistency, we being one of them. With short turnarounds you don’t get a chance to fix things up, you just get off the park and get ready for the next game and look at the next opposition. It’s contributed to some mediocre performances by a lot of teams. Scheduling is becoming far more important and the short turnarounds have a big effect on the quality of rugby league we see at times.”
Perhaps the corollary to the reintroduction of promotion and relegation is not just about making those minutes really sweat and putting in a quality performance but about finding a way to get a result, as Castleford just did at depleted Salford.
Warrington’s win, with their youngsters very much to the fore – Ben Currie, especially, Toby King and Declan Patton all impressive – overshadowed Kevin Sinfield’s astonishing feat of 500 performances for Leeds, only the fourth player in the club’s history to reach the high water mark.
It was a great touch afterwards to have the Leeds skipper presented with a silver salver on the pitch by another of the 500 club, John Atkinson, but Sinfield cut something of a forlorn figure afterwards, not introduced off the bench until it was almost too late and not wanting an ‘L’ in the column on such a prestigious evening. There is no sentiment in professional sport.
What there was at Headingley Carnegie, which helped build a colourful atmosphere beforehand was a student varsity game between Leeds Beckett and Leeds University. The ground was teeming with strange, youthful accents from early on and it is to be hoped that the new audience left with sufficient admiration of what they’d seen, especially in primrose and blue, to return. There was even time for Sir Kev to, bizarrely, inform one of the crowd by video screen that they were to become a father ensuring he left a never-to-be forgotten mark on proceedings for at least one attendee.
Paul Anderson, revelling in Huddersfield’s reversal of their opening day misfire against Hull after their 24-4 success at the KC, said that Lee Radford’s men, “Threw a hell of a lot of shape at us.” It conjured up visions of Leon Pryce and co concentrating more on their dance moves than their draw and pass.
In a highly entertaining game in Perpignan, Catalans’ win to put them back in the top eight was, encouragingly, down not just to the return of talisman Todd Carney but the further flowering of domestic talent.
Morgan Escare responded to being dropped with a game-changing tackle to deny Albert Kelly’s trademark interception while the unfamiliar names of teenager Fouad Yaha – the youngest Frenchman to appear in the competition – try-scoring powerhouse Gadwin Springer, and the continued progress of Benjamin Garcia, all impressed.
Add in such as Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza in the Rovers ranks and maybe the time is right to start planning a second French side in Super League. The issue was always about sufficient quality players and broadcasting money rather than shifting deckchairs, and the French broadcasters are increasingly keen to have something to show every week.
The announcement of the ANZAC and Pacific Nations Test teams for next weekend’s internationals brought back into focus the excitements of the 2013 World Cup and how important the international sphere is for broadening the appeal of the sport, as did the great video ad for the Olympic Stadium Test against the Kiwis in the autumn featuring Jason Robinson, Robbie Hunter-Paul and building site staff.
Equally heartening was Matt Bowen’s weekend trip to Serbia to profile a children’s tournament in Belgrade.
At Huddersfield University’s Heritage Quay, eminent professor Tony Collins, showing a series of clips of matches through the ages, from 1901 to the late 30s, illustrated visually how the game had changed and, thought-provokingly in our 120th year, posed that the battle between the rugby’s was as much about philosophy as class.
Fascinatingly, league and the way it’s played is closer to the true essence of the original rules of the sport, it would appear, not the bastard child.
The broadest smiles are in Warrington the morning after.