Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

Even the most devout sometimes need a reaffirmation. And rugby league fans – and the Challenge Cup especially – were given the greatest fillip after two magnificent and contrasting semi finals that put the sport front and centre, re-emphasising all that is finest.

Top quality on Friday night and underdog drama the following afternoon could not have been better scripted to show off the sport to best advantage.

Both ties had such a strong narrative that they were compelling viewing, attracting over 2.7 million in total, many of them other sports stars and celebrities, who used social networking to laud praise on the heroic players involved and the spectacle produced.

The first semi on a Friday night saw the tv audience grow from half a million at kick off to 1.3m gripped by an epic at the end. There were enough conscious choices to turn over and stay with the game for the BBC and RFL to be satisfied and justified, and the concept looks here to stay – as does possibly taking the semis to development neutral venues such is the interest.

What was also telling about initial analysis of the Friday figures was the audience demographic, with a vastly increased number of A and B viewers, a changing profile that defies usual stereotyping.

Perhaps Red Hall should send a telegram of thanks to England’s cricketers for clearing the decks early and freeing up that particular new audience, Michael Vaughan and Freddie Flintoff among those extolling league after the Aussies were skittled.

Leeds and Saints were simply magnificent, each side having a spell of dominance and showing incredible resilience as the match ebbed and flowed but never lessened – some of the credit for which Ben Thaler should take with only seven penalties awarded.

The Rhinos start was imperious, led by the Herculean charges of Jamie Peacock – ridiculous stats again with 44 tackles and 179 metres – and Zak Hardaker who’s positioning was exceptional and faultless assuredness at the back bred greater confidence.

For the opening 20 minutes, Brian McDermott’s men – and he has now taken Leeds to an astonishing six major finals in five years – were white hot, their centres unmanageable and Adam Cuthbertson barely held as he perfectly illustrated the essence of a handling sport.

That Saints stayed in the contest was equally as admirable and when Alex Walmsley returned – running for a ridiculous 245 metres – and Andre Savelio and Atelea Vea joined the contest, they magnificently reversed the roles.

The standard, like the heroism, never lessened, it was breathless, mesmerising, jaw-dropping viewing with three defining images.

Peacock supplied the talking point with his side-stepping try, reminiscent of his early days as a rampaging Bradford backrower.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who suffered an horrific knee tear in a monumental collision with Travis Burns got up to play the ball before succumbing to oxygen; and the unconfined joy on the face of Savelio as he produced the deftest of passes to send Mark Percival in for his second try.

It was an entirely different but equalling compelling narrative at Headingley as Hull KR made Wembley for the first time in a generation and on the 35th anniversary of their sole triumph there, revelled in by their wildly enthusiastic fans who were tremendous throughout.

If the first semi emphasised what is incomparable about those who play, this was sheer romance, Rovers taking on Leigh’s earlier mantle in the competition that has made 2015 a vintage Cup year in the sport’s 120th.

The old lady has brought out a different side to the Robins who have conceded an average of 28 points a game as they slipped into the Super 8s Qualifiers and now look to preserve their SL status but only 18 per match in disposing of Wigan, Catalans and now Warrington in one-off ties.

Their resolve in the rain was remarkable, Kevin Larroyer with 48 tackles, Albert Kelly at his impish best on attack and Josh Mantellato – one of the season’s best imports, although John Boudebza isn’t far behind, especially following the loss of Josh Hodgson – pulling off two vital try-savers as well as scoring one; at times it seemed like a tight-knit team against a collection of individuals.

The Rovers back story is as impressive as their achievement in getting to Wembley. Less than ten years back in the top flight, chairman Neil Hudgell has, effectively, rebuilt the club – personnel and facilities; slowly, realistically and with a lot of personal sacrifice, especially financially.

Rovers are a model to those Championship clubs with loftier ambitions about how to establish over the long term which Halifax and Sheffield appear to be heeding.

Peacock having a foot in both camps is another great story to build the final around.

Their cup performances have also been a tribute to coach Chris Chester in his first full season learning the ropes and assistant Willie Poching, who could afford himself a wry post-semi smile.

Rovers’ win on Yorkshire day confirmed the second all-White Rose final in succession for the first time since 1943 and although the Rhinos will start as favourites, they will be wary of the parallels with 2005 when they were similarly lauded for their enterprise but came up empty handed.

Hull KR’s performance in reaching Wembley also adds impetus to the forthcoming eights and how that will affect their approach.

The media launch last week was undermined by the, understandable, leaking of fixtures on social networks, principally by those who criticise the governing body as not having a concerted marketing campaign – and, bizarrely, blamed them for the leaks when they appeared to come inadvertently from the clubs.

This wasn’t news, it was an event, something which has worked well so far for the season launch and Magic Weekend build up and it was just a shame that the overall impact was lessened from within.

Wigan are taking a game to the Den just as London look set to announce that their nomadic trail will take them in a different direction to, most likely, Ealing.

It doesn’t seem to be a concerted plan to best capitalise on a potential audience for the sport in the capital, especially after a weekend when the floating sports watcher was emphatically reeled in.

 

The broadest smiles are in East Hull the morning after.

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