Rugby League Challenge Cup Semi-Finals – Sun 5 August – Macron Stadium, Bolton.

The game of Rugby League seems to be at a cross roads at the moment, media coverage in the national press at an all time low, dwindling crowds at many clubs, a TV deal with Sky which does seem to have killed the broader audience of the game, a desire from some at the head of Super League to ‘redistribute’ central funding and all but kill the game at a lower level (as someone who now living in London and watching the likes of Skolars and Hemel Stags that saddens me) and a debate around non-heartlands / heartlands clubs and how the game moves forward.

Which in my opinion is a shame, as the game is still a fantastic sport. As someone who spent much of my childhood in Warrington and who was introduced to the game at an early age,  maybe i am biased but for me it is still the most family friendly, whilst remaining passionate and whole-hearted game there is. Money hasn’t taken it over like top level football, where the divide between the players on the pitch and the fans in the stands has changed beyond repair. In rugby league, the players still live in the same world as their supporters and it gives the game something that money can’t buy for me still.

Players who are real athletes, who put their bodies on the line in the name of success week in – week out but who deserve better from the powers that be, who can’t seem to decide in which direction the game as a whole should go, the actual product is still fabulous and if given the right support and marketing, it should still reach a huge market, despite having probably lost a generation of fans during the Sky deal even in heartlands towns, where going to the Rugby League is not as natural a past time as it once was.

Still Sunday proved, Rugby League can still get it right at times, after low crowds in semi-finals in recent years, the decision was made to make the two semi-finals a double header and make an event of what should be a huge occasion in the game’s calendar.

And with all the tickets ‘sold out’, it proves there still is an appetite when the strategy is right, the sell out crowd mainly made up of fans from the three English clubs, Warrington, Saints and Leeds, with a small but ultimately very happy band of Catalans Dragons supporters in the main stand.

The set up was St Helens v Catalans in the first semi at 12.30pm, followed by my team Warrington Wolves (always The Wire to me) v Leeds Rhinos at 2.45pm.  The ground was bathed in sunshine and the action on the pitch definitely put a smile on my face.

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St Helens, who have been excellent this season, streaking ahead at the top of Super League with a consistency no one else has been able to match, were odds on favourites to turn over Catalans, but the French side have really turned a corner since a dismal start to the season under new coach Steve McNamara and it was always going to be an interesting game.

No one however expected what happened in the first half, as Catalans simply battered and out-fought the league leaders and went in at the break 27-0 ahead, helped by a moment of indiscipline and a Morgan Knowles sin binning for a high tackle which Catalans capitalised on with a game changing glut of points during his 10 minute absence.

Saints threw caution to the wind in the second half as they had to but the damage was done and Catalans added points when they needed to, running out 35-16 winners to reach Wembley and cause one of the shocks of the season. Backed wholeheartedly it must be said by the majority of the stadium (sorry any Saints fans reading this!)

Then onto the main event for me, The Wire v Leeds. Both sides have had an up and down recent past and Leeds came into this one having sunk into the Super League qualifiers and the need to scrap for Super League survival against the top four sides in the second tier Championship and although they should still have too much quality for that challenge, in this game they simply fell away after taking an early lead through Ryan Hall’s try.

 

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Once Tom Lineham broke the line for Warrington to go the length of the field for a try under the sticks, Warrington didn’t really look back and pushed themselves into a 26-6 lead at the break, which despite a brighter opening to the second half from Leeds, they never looked like relinquishing. And so it proved, as a succession of tries late on pushed Warrington on to a 48-12 victory and a return to Wembley.

All in all, Rugby League got it right today, two decent games (although maybe not competitive enough games for the complete neutral), live broadcast on BBC television (reminding a wider audience Rugby League is still alive and well-ish), a stadium that was sold out (although unsurprisingly many Saints fans left before and during the second game).

Value for money indeed , a £25 ticket for 2 top level games, i just wish the game could push itself to a wider audience again, bring it back to those days when it was a topic of conversation for more people. Hopefully those running the game, can find a solution and a way forward to making days like this one, the rule rather than the exception. Although with Catalans now in the final (deservedly i must add), the challenge is going to be huge to draw a big crowd to the final at Wembley, given their travelling support will be more limited than had Saints reached the final.

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