Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

Thank you Hull KR, thank you Leigh; hats off to Batley and haut les chapeaux Featherstone, who arrived back in town at 6.30am Monday so their part-time players could go to ‘real’ work after coming so close to toppling Catalans.

In half of the Challenge Cup ties, the underdog – the staple diet of British sport – breathed fresh life in the grand old lady.

There were understandable worries that she was losing her place, still a listed item – but for how long with the BBC under even closer scrutiny from a new government whose reason d’etre is competition – there were increasing signs of tarnish on what is still the most glorious piece of silverware in sport.

But a round that seemed to throw up mainly predictable ties proved to be the exact opposite.

Rovers began the wonderful weekend with, arguably, the greatest turnaround since the 1999 Super League play offs when St Helens lost 40-4 at Bradford and a fortnight later beat the Bulls at Old Trafford or, maybe, 2008, when Leeds did likewise to Saints.

But neither of those sides turned a 60-point deficit into the black, a result that even the most wildly optimistic, conga-ing Robin could not have expected.

If a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight is a lifetime in sport and, as Leigh proved with their second Super League scalp of the season, 40 minutes the merest blink of an eye.

Their stunning volte-face after trailing 24-6 at the Wildcats said as much about sport psychology as it did tactics.

Much like the great Wigan side of the mid-80s/early 90s, the Centurions have forgotten how to lose, this their 25th consecutive triumph, while downcast Wakefield, couldn’t buy a win even if they had the money.

James Webster’s post-match interviews sounded like the words of a self-condemned man.

Word beforehand was that Leigh might not take a full squad, preferring not to create a fixture log-jam with bigger fish to fry – a decision, understandably, Dewsbury made against Warrington – but that is not Paul Rowley’s way.

His side were inventive with ball in hand post-interval, Ryan Brierley enhancing his reputation as an excitement machine on a bigger stage. It was some comeback but one which, fortunately, didn’t tempt Derek Beaumont to go back on twitter.

That clash saw the great Gareth Thomas comment to his myriad followers on twitter, ‘a classic challenge cup tie. Wish the union game still had a cup for the under dogs to shine and compete’ – one of the best adverts the competition could have.

Leigh’s second half revival, with a 90% completion rate, as opposed to 37% in a nervy opening period, was built on the back of two, raking 40-20s – one from the impeccable Bob Beswick – possibly the best rule brought in during the modern era.

The Centurions’ feat was so nearly matched by cup maestro John Kear’s Batley who outscored Widnes on their home turf after the break but just fell short. Had the Bulldogs won, it would have been a bigger feat than Leigh’s, on ‘that’ pitch and with a part time squad.

Even then, in balmy South of France on Sunday evening, with many glued to a livestream, Featherstone so nearly topped the lot.

They were magnificent at Catalans, scrapping every inch of the way with everything apart from Jeff Lima’s sending off against them, but, playing with a joie de vivre and producing a wonderful performance.

The Dragons were extremely fortunate to scrape through, their only other saving grace, a wonderful shirt.

The performances of Leigh, Batley and Featherstone naturally raised the stakes for the middle-eights and how they might pan out.

The question remains, because of differing intensities of the competitions – seemingly Wakefield apart – can the Championship sides perform at that level for seven consecutive weeks rather than get up for one game – but then, that was the idea of the concept, to ensure that potential elevation was sustainable.

It’s a different debate about the gap between full-time and part-time but, this weekend at least, it didn’t seem as wide.

Most of the coverage gave couch-fans the chance to compare the BBC’s offering with Sky’s. Visually and caption-wise, the satellite provider are still at the cutting edge but where Auntie wins is with the use of current players as the core of their analytical team, offering an eloquent, contemporary insight.

Nor are the BBC shy of innovation with their miking up of Jamie Peacock during Leeds’ clash with Huddersfield, the Sinfield-inspired holders with some glorious long range tries in overwhelming the Giants. 

It enhanced the ferocity and humour that runs through the sport and mightily impressed those on the outside, led by avowed cheerleader, presenter Mark Chapman.

The only other player to be heard such in battle was Willie Mason in the NRL who, last week, was a victim of ‘willygate’ in Australia thanks to former team mate Tariq Sims; as now – thanks to dressing room pictures – is Rob Burrow.

The Ray French profile of the first of the five Wembley statue members, former team mate Alex Murphy, was excellent, the Corporation always keen to add the vital dimension of heritage and context.

The beeb held a little reception before the Leeds game to confirm their commitment to the sport, it was just a shame that the Leeds result, never mind the odd highlight of their main afternoon sporting schedule, did not make the national 10 o’clock news.

Similarly, for a sport whose protagonists are not household names to the majority of households, first names on their team lists would be helpful.

Unsung hero of the cup round was Jonathan Roberts, called off the touchline to replace hamstrung Phil Bentham at Headingley Carnegie.

Rising up the ranks, he had only previously whistled in League 1, so for his first introduction to the top tier being the match of the round and on national screens could have been exceptionally daunting but he was excellent, precise in his signalling and very much in control, an encouraging sign for a sport desperate for new officiating blood.

Overall, it was a reaffirming weekend for the game, not least in Belgrade where Serbia beat Russia 20-15 in European Championship B for the first time in eight attempts.

The moment of victory is captured on Youtube below

it encapsulates not only why we love league, but sport.

You never know, but with new Minister for Sport and other stuff Tracey Crouch being a Rhinos fan and, possibly, Leigh supporter Andy Burnham in charge of the Labour party, and Greg Mulholland one of the few Liberals left the chairman of the All-party Parliamentary group, perhaps our visibility and profile will rise at high table and we might even get a heavyweight presence to present the cup at Wembley.

 

The broadest smiles are in o-Leigh, o-Leigh, o-Leigh, o-Leigh the morning after.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*