Forty-20 Column: The Morning After


Where there was predictability, now there is doubt. Where there was certainty, now there is conjecture.

Foregone conclusions have been swept aside and, while the 8s concept still has four weeks to run which could confirm the status-quo, what Paul Rowley had called ‘the impossible dream’ has been made more tangible by Bradford’s sensational win over Salford.

A first championship victory over a Super League side was a shot in the arm for the concept but the margin – and turnaround by the Bulls – was the eye-opener.

James Lowes’s men not only upset a Red Devils applecart that continually seems to be losing a wheel but showed that salary cap discrepancies, marquees players or not, harnessed spirit and togetherness, especially on an effective cup run, can mean more; the very reasons why Hull KR are at and will relish Wembley this Saturday.

Rovers themselves came up with a result that, had the Bulls not, rightfully, grabbed the intakes of breath would have commanded the headlines.

Their triumph on the Widnes pitch to be the only unbeaten side in the Qualifiers and, effectively, a win away from securing their top flight status despite having eight first teamers out was magnificent, a result that means there are no distractions for their weekend crusade.

Confidence assured and with places are up for grabs in the showcase 17, maybe being in the Qualifiers, rather than drifting along in the lower reaches of Super League, has been a restorative boon for Chris Chester’s men.

With the dust settled after week three of the middle-8s, it appears that Bradford rather than Leigh are in pole position to be the championship side in the million pound game and Salford for Super League likewise rather than gutsy Wakefield, who in Lee Smith could have made the best pre-deadline signing.

Not only calm, assured and organised at the back, helping to dictate the flow of the game, the former Harry Sunderland winner has proved a match-winning goal kicker which, in these scenarios, has been worth its weight in gold.

The Wildcats’ narrow success at the Leigh Sports Village was a triumph of patience and game management, the exact opposite of when the sides met in the Challenge Cup, it was physical chess based on sapping the Centurions’ energy and forcing them to chase the game and invite, inevitable, frustration.

It had the stamp of Brian Smith all over it.

In the top tier, another pre-season foregone conclusion for the majority of pundits, that Warrington would take the title after their shrewd acquisitions, was finally blown out of the water by a dominant Wigan, the disjointed Wolves nilled at home for the first time in their new stadium.

Afterwards, the Warriors revelled in dispelling the pre-match hype surrounding ‘pie-smashing’ but the Wolves should be applauded for such an initiative – that’s marketing, a story, talking-point, focus of interest – exactly what we all need.

It backfired but was anything but disrespectful and has already set up the next encounter between the sides perfectly.

Both Warrington and St Helens who were defeated in a penalty-ridden encounter by Huddersfield to put their Grand Final hopes in jeopardy, seem to be suffering almighty, confidence-sapping Challenge Cup semi-final defeat hangovers.

In a match littered by 26 penalties, it was somewhat ironic and just that the Giants won by spurning to go for two points on offer and were vindicated courtesy of Aaron Murphy’s try.

Too much of the top flight fare, though, appears to be suffering from the effects of fatigue from such a long season and, from a fans perspective, familiarity breeding contempt with repeat fixtures coming so quickly.

One other foregone conclusion may also have been overturned over the weekend, that the big finals can only be refereed by either Phil Bentham or Richard Silverwood.

Yet again, Ben Thaler put forward a compelling case that he should be in charge of the 120th anniversary game in the capital with the way he handled the Catalans v Castleford game, not least his rapport with the players and dealing with Ben Pomeroy’s horror wrestling tackle on Ashley Gibson.

With the television sound not working at the start of each half but the ref’s mike live, Thaler unobtrusively and impressively went about his business, determined to let the teams play which, especially in the conditions, helped provide a spectacle unlike at Langtree Park two nights before.

We need an open and exhilarating Wembley showcase, there’s yet to have been one at the new stadium and – especially with the right man in the middle – the portents are there.

There’s a terrific underdogs story which is the backbone of British sport. If Rovers were to win, it would be the greatest upset since Featherstone in 1983 who were 12th in the table going in to their game against league-leaders Hull.

Both sides are likely to be at strength, there are a plethora of stories surrounding the game on both sides – not least farewells, new experiences and feet in both camps – and a perfect stage for the skills they enshrine to make the ball do the work.

Add in the unveiling of a magnificent statue that will truly put the sport on the national map and the singing of Lizzie Jones watched by 80,000 fans and there is no reason to think that Saturday will be anything other than spectacular.

As always, it is how we capitalise on it that will count.

The broadest smiles are in Bradford the morning after.