So for the 5th time in the last ten years, the Wire had made it through to the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, where they would meet Catalans Dragons who were aiming to be the first side to take the trophy outside of the UK.
Prior to the game, most of the focus had been on what the attendance (or lack of it would be) and sadly despite the RFL claiming a 50,000 plus attendance, i would still dispute that given the lower bowl at the far end of the stadium was nowhere near full and the Club Wembley section where many people had their seats upgraded to was also under capacity but i suppose quoting a 50,000 attendance helps the RFL save face to an extent in terms of attendance.
On arrival at Wembley, the turnstile quoted on my ticket wasn’t open and it soon became apparent why, as fans holding tickets for the upper tier of Wembley were shepherded through a different entrance, in order that their match tickets could be exchanged at a table lined with stewards for seats in the lower tier. The upper tier for the first time in the final’s history was completely shut in order to make the stadium seem fuller than it was for TV purposes.
As a life long fan of the game of rugby league, it is saddening we have reached this point, where an occasion that was once a focal point for everyone in the game, now struggles to half fill a stadium and that is even after upgrades, giveaways and offers on Group On etc. The game has fallen a long way in people’s mindsets, even in the heartlands and the RFL and Super League really now have to think long and hard about the game’s future and how to re-engage with people. A whole generation of supporters have been lost over the last 20 odd years, of Sky TV deals, weird kick off times, licence based promotions (or lack of them) etc and by my reckoning a major strategic chance is needed to ensure this is just a low point from which the game returns rather than the beginning of a slow and dismal demise.
Rugby League is a magnificent sport, players who put their bodies on the line, club’s with immense history and tradition and town’s that will still back their clubs on the big occasion but too much has been lost for little return and a focus on the long-term rather than the short- term is now essential.
As for the game itself, as a Warrington fan it pains me to say it but on the day Catalans were worthy winners. We all knew what was coming in the first 20 minutes, anyone who had watched the French side batter St Helens from the start in the semi-final did but for some reason Warrington seemed to have overlooked it. Catalans were aggressive, demanding and in the Wire’s faces from the start and scored an early try through Lewis Tierney in the second minute after Warrington spilt a high kick off the last tackle, this was converted and swiftly followed by a penalty to make it 8-0 and it was a deficit you felt Warrington would always struggle to claw back as the game went on.
The effort of the Warrington lads couldn’t be faulted, sadly as has happened on too many big occasions over the last few years, the application could, as nothing seemed to flow as they would have wanted to it and although they could claim not to have got the rub of the green in terms of refereeing decisions, with the eternally frustrating Robert Hicks in charge, if i am honest Catalans got the result they deserved.
The last few weeks have seen the Dragons focus purely on this game, resting players in large numbers in recent Super League games benefited them and their level of intensity was of a team who knew they had the chance to create history and create history they did, as despite Warrington’s valiant late efforts as they got within a converted try of forcing extra time, Catalans held on in the face of some late pressure and achieved something no other club ever has in the 122 year old history of the competition and took the trophy away from these shores.
For the neutral no doubt it was the result they wanted and for us Wire fans it was another day of what might have been, after all it is always our year. But for me, this final goes beyond the result. The game has to change, has to learn. It needs to market itself better, it needs to re-engage with town’s and cities across the north of England especially where generations of people no longer even consider going to watch their side, it needs to continue to strive to grow the game outside the heartlands of course (i welcome Toronto, Catalans etc and actively pay money to watch London Skolars and Hemel Stags at a lower level of the game) but the game must not forget where it game from, the people it drew support from for years because Saturday’s attendance shows many of those people have now forgotten the game and the likes of Ralph Rimmer (chief executive of the RFL) and Robert Elstone (newly appointed Head of Super League) need to remember this and begin to re-engage, they are the torch bearers for a sport with a long and proud history and decisions they make over the next few years are going to decide the game’s future.