The eve of a Northern Rail Cup Final is an exciting time if you are involved and the atmosphere and nerves have been building all week in Leigh and Halifax.
One set of fans will be cheering and dancing deleriously around Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road come seven o’clock on Sunday night and whether it will be Leythers or Fax fans I’m sure we will witness a good final.
Tickets have departed from the relevant shops and offices in good number and we realistically have the prospect of a close to sell out crowd despite over a quarter of the stadium not being in use. It is sad that the ground could not be fully opened and this is something the RFL must look at in future years.
The game is set to be a good advert for rugby league outside of Super League and this competition must be retained and developed.
At the start when this competition came into being after three years of the Trans Pennine Cup many people thought it was a bit of a non-event but that may have been down to the fact that Huddersfield swept all before them and the final was played at Featherstone where they defeated Hull Kingston Rovers. Take nothing away from Featherstone but a final needs to be played in more gradiose surroundings.
From Fev, the final upped sticks and moved to Rochdale where in 2003 and 2004, Leigh Centurions qualified for both finals losing to Salford first time out and then winning against Hull Kingston Rovers.
Rovers themselves made it third time lucky in 2005 when they surprised Castleford in a dramatic final, although they lost out on their return twelve months later when Leigh halted a twenty-plus game winning sequence . Widnes Vikings made their first final appearance in 2007 and put on a big score in a 54-6 demolition of Whitehaven. 2008 saw a resugent Salford City Reds sweep the board with a 60-0 whitewash even surpassing the previous record.
Thankfully the last two years have seen a couple of full blooded finals, and closer games. First Widnes were on song as a John Duffy inspired Vikings defeated Barrow 34-18 which ultimately tipped the scales in Widnes favour on the field when it came to their successful Super League license application earlier this year.
Last year was a stunning final as underdogs Batley Bulldogs upset the odds to win 25-24 thanks to Alex Brown. The powerful winger, who is set to switch codes to play for Sale from November scored two tries, including a superb last minute effort that sunk the Vikings, playing in their third final in four years.
2011 will see history made regardless of the result. Leigh are looking to lift the trophy for a record third time following their successes in 2004 and 2006 while Halifax are in their first final although it is interesting to note their progression in the last couple of years from winning the 2009 Northern Rail Nines Plate, succeeding in the Northern Rail Nines Cup last season to reaching the main final this term.
Both teams have their gamebreakers and winners. Leigh will look to their pack in the first instance where Chris Hill, David Mills and Steve Nash have been excellent up front all season. Add the often unheralded work of Tommy Goulden, James Taylor and Andy Thornley and it’s a workmanlike mix that helps spark the teams halves and decision makers like Duffy, Martyn Ridyard and Jamie Ellis. Throw in former Bradford great Robbie Hunter-Paul, unflappable fullback and skipper Stuart Donlan and points ace Mick Nanyn and it is obvious why Leigh have gone so well in 2011.
For all you stattos out there here are the Centurions weighty points contributors this season: Ellis 23 tries 8 goals, Donlan 16 tries, Nanyn 16 tries 109 goals, Ridyard 15 tries 6 goals, Maden 13 tries, Goulden 11 tries.
Halifax have been a team of contrasts in 2011. After winning the Co-operative Championship in sudden-death extra time last September several changes took place in the Fax ranks and other than Northern Rail Cup form, they started this term poorly. Following a spirited effort in a televised Challenge Cup tie, the club brought in experienced Super League coach Brian Noble to help Matt Calland and the combination has proved dividends since Fax beat Sheffield in the league on 22nd May. Since then, the Yorkshire side have played five league games and won four, including a 36-16 success over Leigh at the Sports Village.
In fact Halifax have a 100% record at Leigh’s new home; winning games there in 2009, 2010 and now 2011. It was only Leigh’s second defeat of the season if you factor in a narrow Challenge Cup defeat to Catalan Dragons.
Fax have seen a return to form of halfback Ben Black while after a slow start Danny Jones has proved a good signing from Keighley and the craft of Bob Beswick seems to work in contrast with the chaos generally caused by the introduction of Sean Penkywicz. The blue and white pack is boosted by Makali Aizue who seems to be enjoying his second year at the Shay while Sam Barlow proved an inspired capture from Sheffield despite the controversy that went with his signature come play off time last season. Out wide Halifax have some very good and fast backs with Lee Paterson, Paul White and Rob Worrincy all catching the eye.
Big contributions for Halifax this year have come from Jones 9 tries 57 goals and 1 DG, Penkywicz 13 tries, Paul White 19 tries, Rob Worrincy 20 tries, Sam Barlow 11 tries.
So there you have it. Can you pick a winner? I’m certainly picking up splinters at the moment. I wonder how it will go?
I’ll be recording a podcast special featuring some commentary from the game and reaction from the day so listen out for it on www.loverugbyleague.com soon.