Castleford become the latest guests at Wembley's Challenge Cup final party
to reach their first Challenge Cup final since 1992 in an uplifting semi-final (apart from ) that enhanced the record of the game’s premier knockout trophy as one of the most open competitions in elite team sport. Castleford will become the eighth different club to play at Wembley since it reopened in 2007, showing the effectiveness of the blanket salary cap and discrediting the view many fans have that small clubs never get their moments of glory.
It will be refreshing to see the joyous fans of yet another different club swamping Wembley’s bays on 23 August. Of course, the big guns still dominate: Leeds will be aiming to end their hoodoo after six final defeats already this century, and if they are not in the final, Wigan or St Helens usually are. But how wonderful is it that fans of Huddersfield, , Catalans, Hull and even London have walked down Wembley Way? Granted, the luck of the draw can take a mediocre team to the brink of Wembley but Cas will have to beat three top-eight sides to lift the trophy.
Taking the last generation – 30 seasons since 1985 – nine different clubs have won the and 14 have reached the final. Of the current Super League teams, half have won the cup and 12 have been to the final – that’s 86%. Only Wakefield and Salford have not made it Wembley in a generation.
Contrast that with Super League: in 18 years, eight of the 14 current members have finished in the top two or been to the Grand Final – that’s 57% – but only four have won it, a mere 29%. Extend that back 30 years and the picture changes only slightly: just seven teams have won the league title and 11 have finished in the top two (79%). So within one generation, just 43% of current top-flight teams have won the main prize – yet only Cas, Wakefield, Salford and Catalans have not been close to it and all have reached the play-offs in the last decade.
Taking the top sports competitions in the world, the Challenge Cup compares very favourably. It has as far better spread of glory than the Premier League (eight winners in 30 years) and America’s major four leagues. The NFL put a huge emphasis on the parity system that should ensure everyone has a chance every season and in the past 30 years, 78% of NFL teams have reached the Super Bowl, although only 44% have won it. Neither Ice hockey (50% of NHL teams have won the Stanley Cup in the last generation and 73% have reached the final two) nor basketball (63% of NBA teams have been finalists but only 27% have won it) can match the Challenge Cup either.
Challenge Cup final appearances are spread around even more than those in the World Series for Major League Baseball teams in America’s most open competition. With no fixed salary caps and a massive disparity in wage bills and resources, a whopping 83% of MLB teams have reached the World Series since 1985 and 60% of teams have won it.
But top of the pile, as usual, is the National Rugby League. In the past 20 years, all but two of the current 16 clubs have been to a Grand Final – that is 87.5% – and 11 have won it (69%). Only the young fans of seemingly cursed South Sydney, and Gold Coast Titans, recent arrivals at the party, have yet to enjoy a Grand Final.
It will be intriguing to see if the spreading of Challenge Cup love continues after next season, when the top eight in get a bye to the last 16 and thus only need three wins to reach Wembley. It increases the likelihood of the big boys meeting early on and a path perhaps being cleared to the final for a lesser light.
Many clubs have used Challenge Cup success as a launchpad for a more sustained challenge at the upper end of the Super League table. The gauntlet is now down for Cas to do the same. They have waited long enough. Maybe it will even be in the same year. Dare to dream, Tigers fans.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the weekend was to end the USA’s four-year hold on the Colonial Cup. Stuart Donlan’s Wolverines are progressing but can’t have expected such an emphatic win over the Tomahawks until they saw the team-sheet.
The US team, managed by AMNRL-appointee Steve Johnson from an office in Brisbane, that beat Samoa Residents 18-12 a fortnight earlier in Hawaii was basically the World Cup quarter-finalists minus their NRL and England-based pros such as Bradford Bulls-bound Mark Offerdahl and featured players from both the thriving USARL and the comatose AMNRL. The side that turned up in Canada only had one of the same players and a squad of new names, basically a B team.
The ongoing split meant USA could not achieve the RLIF full-member status required of World Cup qualifiers. With only one place for the Americas region at RLWC2017, if USA automatically qualified, the fine grassroots growth Jamaica (who are full members), and the potential in Canada, would be wasted, potentially fatally. That could not be allowed to happen.
It will be interesting to see if Canada can bring their west and east coast operations together, too, to gain full membership by the end of the qualification period. The Wolverines squad that beat USA was entirely east coast-based without a single player from the British Columbia RL.
There were over 7,000 at both Tomahawks games. Not only does this suggest that North Americans will attend an event in large numbers, particularly one where they can cheer on their home nation, but also that the triangular America qualifying group for the 2017 World Cup is going to be extremely tasty. Canada squeezed past Jamaica 24-20 last month and Jamaica will fancy their chances at home to USA in October. Imagine how lively it will be when a World Cup place is up for grabs.
Clubcall: Workington Town
A year on, only one of England’s venues for the will stage international rugby league again this autumn: not Wembley, the DW or even Langtree Park, but humble old Derwent Park, home of resurgent Workington.
Seemingly doomed to relegation two months ago, Town are raging against the dying of the light. So much so that after winning the Cumberland derby in front of just under 2,000 last week, they could well make the Championship play-offs under former Scotland international Phil Veivers. It seems apt that their four Bravehearts (Brett and Callum Phillips, Brett Carter and Alex Szostak) will get the chance to wear the saltire again in west Cumbria, where the locals did such a fine job of hosting Scotland that Steve McCormack’s men will return to play a “home” European Cup game against Wales there on Friday 17 October.
The only other RLWC2013 ground in Euros action is Wrexham, where Wales face Ireland in the final game on 2 November. Ireland are hosting France (18 October) and Scotland (25 October) at the smart, modern Tallaght Stadium on the outskirts of Dublin. Watch out for some youth internationals as curtain-raisers, too.
Despite successful World Cup nights at Avignon and Perpignan, France are playing Wales on 25 October at Albi, which has a track record of drawing decent attendances for internationals. After years of playing before desultory crowds at Glasgow and a couple of damp squibs in Edinburgh, Scotland have decided to experiment with a first-ever international in the Borders. The Super League stars of France should draw a decent Friday night crowd to Galashiels on 31 October for ScotlandRL’s anniversary event.
Lies, damned lies and statistics. RFL head honcho Nigel Wood announced recently that rugby league viewing figures in 2013 were up 40% on 2012, which is a little misleading as that rise must be due to the World Cup, not the domestic game. Then came the stunner: “Adult participation has increased by 52% on 2012.” Pardon? That would make rugby league the biggest sports story in Britain.
If it means playing in proper matches then that surely cannot be true. The number of amateur teams has not noticeably changed. There must be a simple explanation. I suspect the RFL now include numbers playing touch rugby. If so, that is an extraordinarily spurious claim from a governing body. Almost as alarming is that no other media seem to have challenged this claim.
In the same week, SL general manager Blake Solly told League Express that “the Championship 1 title race is more intense than ever before” and that the 2015 league format ensures “that the gap between SL and the Championships is narrower than ever before”. Really? Than ever before. In the words of the Reverend Chuck D of Public Enemy: “Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype.”
Fifth and last
Spotted in the car park after a recent Wigan away game, a sign to bring a smile to even the most miserable, beaten opposition fan: “There are no pies left in this vehicle overnight.”
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