Forty-20 Column: The Morning After
A pat on the back weekend for rugby league after 35,000 fans turned up to watch a riveting set of Ladbrokes Challenge Cup quarter finals.
All of the ties offered a different, compelling story to breathe life back into a competition that seemed a little bit like the dusty mantelpiece clock in your great aunt’s front room; both cherished relics.
Playing a game a day from Thursday to Sunday proved to be a masterstroke of scheduling, allowing the overall narrative to build and gather momentum, for games to feed off each other, culminating in the semi final draw on Sunday evening which got top billing on national radio sports news bulletins for the rest of the evening – truly a PR coup.
There were defining images from every game; from Albert Kelly’s impishness to Laurent Frayssinous’s increasingly furrowed mono-brow, Kevin Sinfield’s studiousness to Joe Westerman’s anguish, Brad Dwyer’s enthusiasm to Leigh’s effusiveness and St Helens’s defiance to the Vikings’s sigh.
The ultimately defining images both came from the game at the Halliwell Jones and gave us the wider talking points beyond the usual realms.
Kevin ‘Orville’ Penny’s astonishing gymnastic prowess for a simply majestic try and he of the Harry Hill collar, Ashton Sims’s miked up growlings both went viral and way beyond league’s usual sphere of influence.
Alongside the 40-20 kick, the removal of the corner flag as being in play has been a magnificent change to the rules that best emphasises the handling art with which we associate ourselves.
Every week, on both sides of the world, wingers are now showing astonishing feats of athleticism to score breathtaking tries that defy belief and make magnificent pictures, Penny’s up there with the best as he snaked around the pole with a one-handed put down as the rest of his body seemed to defy gravity.
Even the ‘Footy Show’ was trailing it as the potential try of the year.
Sims, like Jamie Peacock before him, wore and nearly broke the technology to absolutely wow the unsuspecting about what it takes to be a league player, his exhortations and howls – especially when he scored – almost as frightening as the hits the microphone absorbed.
Even more than that, though, his words of encouragement to friend during and foe after alike, summed up the spirit and respect the game is played in better than any edict or comparison could, the admiration of those not connected or unfamiliar with the sport flooding social networking after it was broadcast.
Catalans felt hard done to but their horror start cost them while Hull KR seem like Castleford last year, enjoying the ride for what it is, playing with a sense of freedom outside of the race for the eight.
Leeds had too much wet weather, cup tie nous for Hull, defying depleted ranks and controlling the game from the off while the Airlie Birds, who have been conservative with ball in hand for most of the season, decided to abandon the ploy when it would have been most appropriate to again pick up the ‘flattered to deceive’ award.
On three occasions having seemingly got St Helens on the rack, Widnes coughed up the ball to undermine their best efforts whilst Keiron Cunningham’s men – and how they will miss Mose Masoe next year as he swaps Saints – custodians or no, showed typical calm and structure to dig their way out of potential trouble.
The most watchable was on peak time Saturday afternoon as Leigh rid themselves of the embroiled and emphasised their enterprise with some wonderful rugby that exemplified the philosophy of play what you see.
Watching them was almost a throwback, big men in the middle offloading, halves scheming and fast men out wide in full flow; taking the sport back to the constituent parts that have defined it.
It was refreshing, exciting, reputation-enhancing and, but for Penny’s glory dive, Greg McNally’s sensational score set up by Liam Kay’s inside kick on the run which showed exceptional poise and technique would have received even more plaudits.
Inevitably, the Centurions’ performance was extrapolated to what it might mean come the eights but it was an afternoon in front of a wonderful crowd that produced a sensational atmosphere in its own right.
Warrington had Lee Briers out there in yellow t-shirt assisting fresh from his new two year deal, with talk again that they have yet to find an adequate replacement in his number six shirt.
The one currently wearing it, Stefan Ratchford, still looks the player most likely to although, perhaps, his talents are limited at full back.
All in all, a terrific weekend of cup action across two broadcast platforms for maximum impact and an ideal semi final draw for the week before the eights kick off.
A bizarre press conference by the still charismatic but increasing self-parodying Marwan Koukash announced the impending arrival of Tim Sheens and little else, while the game came together to rightly fete the career of Paul Wellens on his enforced retirement, who defined the meaning of what it takes to be a modern day professional and absolute role model in an exceptional career.
Wakefield played poker with their ground while strengthening the spine of their side, Kevin Locke could be their eights X-factor but Michael Sio their lynchpin.
We bemoaned the lack of centres in the game for a while with overseas players dominating the position and, possibly, the same likely to happen with props after the announcements of Frank Pritchard and Sam Rapira already for 2016, and the arrival of Mitch Garbutt this weekend.
Add in such as Dane Tilse, Scott Anderson, Corey Paterson et al and there seems to be a trend to import our hard men which, as much as the Widnes result, must make Jim Mills weep into his beer.
The broadest smiles are in South Wales the morning after.