ASIDE from a noticeable section of empty seats at the Keepmoat Stadium and Brian Noble’s appalling taste in neckwear, Friday night’s Challenge Cup semi-final between Hull FC and Wigan Warriors once again showcased everything great about rugby league to a national audience.
The BBC’s decision to screen one of the last four match-ups on a Friday evening for the second year in a row, along with the Warrington Woves-Widnes Vikings clash in the quarter-finals, has been generally well-received – except, perhaps, by those Wigan fans who were put off by the prospect of a 174-mile round trip to Doncaster at an inconvenient time.
Despite the Keepmoat effectively being annexed as a south-western suburb of the black and white half of Hull for the night, the attendance of 10,488 was fewer than 600 down on the previous year’s Friday semi-final, which necessitated Leeds Rhinos fans making a similarly long-distance trip to see their side face St Helens at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Nevertheless, there have been some rumblings of discontent from some pundits – but not for the reason you might think.
Is it just me or does this not feel like a challenge cup semi final. Surely these matches have to be on a Saturday day and Sunday day.
— Lee Briers (@briers6) July 29, 2016
Former Warrington half-back Lee Briers and ex-Leeds prop turned Sky Sports analyst Barrie McDermott were both vocal on Twitter in their opposition to Challenge Cup semi-finals being played on a Friday, and all because it goes against tradition.
— Barrie McDermott (@RLBarrieMc10) July 30, 2016
McDermott put forward a particularly bizarre argument about how it is okay for Super League to be innovative because it is still relatively new, while the Challenge Cup should stay as it is – or was – because of its history stretching back 120 years.
Fine, let us go back to playing one semi-final on a Saturday and one on a Sunday. And while we are at it, bring back replays for drawn games – a concept which was abolished many years ago, yet still remains in place if the final ends level.
McDermott’s argument simply does not stack up on closer examination. For the majority of the wider viewing public, the Challenge Cup is their window to the world of rugby league and if showing one or two games on a Friday night allows more people to view the sport then surely that can only be a good thing?
And is it not also a good thing that people can see rugby league as a forward-thinking, inovated sport rather than being wedded to the past in these occassional bouts of introspection?
As well as this, there are still those rose-tinted spectacle-wearing luddites who believe the final should be moved back to its old end-of-May slot to restore the prestige of the Challenge Cup.
However, this overlooks the fact the whole reason it was moved to the August Bank Holiday weekend was that the switch of the league season to summer while leaving the Cup as a winter competition had made it start to seem like little more than a pre-season knockabout.
Throughout its history, rugby league has always been willing to change to made it as appealing as possible for both players and spectators alike.
Tradition is important too, but just because we have always done something a certain way does not mean we should keep doing it the same way. That, after all, is one of the worst reasons for not making bold, but ultimately beneficial, decisions.
Meanwhile, on the pitch…: As for the matches themselves, they could hardly have been more contrasting.
Predictably, the BBC started their Friday coverage by bigging up the Hull-Wigan showdown as a repeat of the 1985 Challenge Cup final – regarded by many as the greatest of all-time – and this match-up proved to be every bit as thrilling.
Marc Sneyd carried off the man of the match award as Hull triumphed 16-12, although it was once again the work done up front from back three Mark Minichiello, Sika Manu and Gareth Ellis, along with the effervescent Danny Houghton, which laid the platform for their backs to shine.
The following day at Leigh Sports Village, Wakefield Trinity simply found themselves overwhelmed by a rampant Warrington outfit, who ran out 56-12 winners to book their fourth Cup final appearance in eight seasons.
Competition sponsor Ladbrokes have the Wolves as 5/6 favourites, with Hull rated as Evens to lift the trophy for the first time since 2005. If you are feeling adventurous and think the teams are equally-matched, the draw is available at 16/1.
Of course, no Challenge Cup final has finished level and gone to a replay since 1982, so maybe we are overdue one. And as Hull fans will no doubt point out, they won on that occasion as well…
Amateur score of the week: Leigh Miners Rangers 6 Thatto Heath 62, Women’s Challenge Cup final. A day after the professionals had finished battling it out for a place in next month’s Wembley showpiece, the women’s competition took centre stage at Odsal.
Tara Stanley led the way for Thatto Heath with a hat-trick of tries, while Emily Rudge and Sammy Simpson added two apiece as well to help the St Helens-based side secure glory.
It proved a day of double success for the club, with the reserves beating Whitley Bay Barbarians 44-0 in the final of the Women’s Challenge Shield.
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