Wow, what a weekend in Rugby League circles!
First up, we were treated to two absolute humdingers in the SuperLeague Semi-Finals: Warrington v Leeds on Friday night was one of the best games I have seen this season. The intensity was at boiling point from the first whistle to the last, and the two teams served up a real treat to the capacity crowd at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. For the first time in three weeks, it felt like the SuperLeague Play-Offs finally sprang to life, League leaders Warrington have been a formidable force all season, and they chose to play a resurgent Leeds Rhinos in their home Semi Final. The ‘club call’ gimmick is seen by many as exactly that, a gimmick and nothing more, but in reality if it didn’t exist Leeds would have played Warrington at this stage anyway, so for this year at least, it is a bit of a moot point.
Leeds have to be the form team in SuperLeague, and over the last few weeks have really started to play as a unit, compromising some of their expansive rugby with some solid, backs-to-the-wall stuff, and it has paid dividends. It was the perfect blend of rugby to overcome many people’s favourites for the comp, personified by their very own ‘Captain Marvel’ Kevin Sinfield. He had an inspirational game in both defence and attack before kicking the last minute penalty under huge pressure, to win the game. The first thing Sinfield mentioned in the post-match Sky interview was praise for his coach Brian McDermott. Has the continually under-fire Head Coach finally vindicated his position after reaching both major finals in his debut season at Leeds? I hope so.
Saints and Wigan had a lot to live up to the following night, and they delivered. Another vociferous crowd saw two teams give it their all to get to the showpiece event. Many people didn’t think that St Helens had it in them to beat a very impressive Wigan team twice in three weeks, but they proved those doubters wrong on Saturday night and have truly earned their incredible SIXTH consecutive Grand Final appearance.
James Graham was a rock for St Helens in this game; he let nothing past him all night whilst continually gaining the hard yards in attack. They will certainly miss him when he heads down under to the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2012. James Roby was a stand out performer yet again, he has carried his team on his own at times this season, and in my eyes he is the only credible candidate for the ‘Man of Steel’ award.
There have been rumblings in some quarters that 3rd place v 5th place in the Grand Final this year ‘undermines’ the event and with it the ultimate prize of Champions, but I couldn’t disagree more. For many many years the Rugby League Champions have always been decided after a play-off series (Dewsbury were Champions in 1973, yet finished the season in 8th place!) and to me it means that the finalists are the two form teams of the competition, and they have shown the strength of character and determination to win, despite taking a tougher play-off route. In an ideal world, the play-offs would be down to just the top four teams (of a ten team league, but that’s for another blog!).
Which brings me onto this Saturday, the big one. The Grand Final at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, Old Trafford. There is something about the Grand Final that makes it a very special occasion. The 75,000 screaming fans, all the drama under lights, the intensity and pressure that both teams go through to reach the ultimate prize. It never fails to get the hairs on my neck standing on end. This year it is part IV of the great Leeds v St Helens saga. Will Leeds make it 4 in a row over their great rivals? Or will Saints add a record breaking sixth SuperLeague title to their impressive honours list? I’m tipping the latter… (But only just!)
Congratulations are in order after three Finals have already taken place, firstly to Manly Sea Eagles who beat New Zealand Warriors 24-10 in a bruising NRL Grand Final yesterday morning, I already look forward to seeing them in the flesh at the World Club Challenge next February! Secondly to Keighley Cougars, who returned to the Championship at the first attempt after beating Workington 32-12 in the Championship One Grand Final, and finally a big congratulations to Featherstone Rovers who bounced back from last years heartbreaking golden-point defeat to Halifax to be crowned Champions after a comfortable 40-4 victory over a battling Sheffield Eagles.
Featherstone are a model Championship club, run well within their means, with a good production line of players and a strong first team squad, all overseen by Darryl Powell. After yesterdays victory many people were questioning why such a young British head coach with his credentials isn’t back in SuperLeague, but I think he is perfectly happy with what he is trying to achieve in the long term at Fev. I’m sure that if he had applied for one of the recently vacant head coach positions at Salford, Cas, Wakefield or either Hull teams, he would have been seriously considered.
And finally… One man in Rugby League has certainly got tongues wagging today, he was even trending across the UK on twitter for over 6 hours no less, and that man is Rangi Chase. England coach Steve McNamara has caused quite a stir by naming New Zealand born Chase in his initial England train-on squad for the Four Nations that start at the end of the month. I can completely understand McNamara’s decision to include Chase in his squad. It is in his job description to make the England national team the strongest it can be, in order to compete against Australia and New Zealand. He has also included Australian born Chris Heighington in his squad too and tried to tempt Manly rookie scrum half Daley Cherry Evans, albeit unsuccessfully. But if it’s good enough for Englands Rugby Union, Cricket and even Football teams, then surely it is good enough for our Rugby League team? Hell, even one of Australia’s most capped players in their history Petro Civoneciva is Fijian! However, I can’t say I’m overly delighted by the news, mainly because Chase himself was quoted as saying that ‘to play for New Zealand is something he has dreamed of since he was a child’. Hmm… I just can’t help but think that the already fragile credibility of International Rugby League is being stretched to breaking point.
I hope a truly brilliant Four Nations tournament can prove me wrong.