C’est magnifique! Catalan Dragons stun Wire at Wembley

But is it time to look at the showpiece event, and specifically, is it time it left Wembley?

Firstly, the match itself. There is no doubting that Warrington certainly looked stunned when Catalan went ahead inside the first 5 minutes, bur from that point on, the victor was hardly ever in doubt.

Warrington looked like staging a late comeback, but the Dragons defence was strong enough to hold on for an historic 20-14 victory.

Ahead of kick off, I bumped into Alex Simmons of Rugby AM, and asked him how he felt the game would go…

As it was, Catalan Dragons went home with both the Challenge Cup and the Lance Todd trophy for Man of the Match, which is voted for by the press, went to Tony Gigot.

There had been a Twitter campaign to #LetsFillWembley but it fell someway short as the crowd of 50,672 was the lowest of the modern era. Quite a few people blamed this on the fact that one of the finalists came from France, and traditionally, the month of August is a holiday period, and the short turnaround between the Semi final and Final.

Me?

I think the Challenge cup needs a MAJOR overhaul.

Wembley is too big to stage a rugby league showpiece final.

The amount of buildings that have gone up around the stadium means there can be no fan park for supporters to mingle and to build the atmosphere ahead of entering the ground, and this is important.

When you’ve a stadium that holds 90,000, generating an atmosphere with just over half of that really takes some doing. You can’t rely on a couple of 1/2 time games and a choir before kick off to generate one. No matter how good the stadium announcer is, and in Pete Nuttall the sport has one of THE very best in the business, he cant do it if there is no crowd to motivate.

Even the small fan park at the Grand Final gets fans in the mood for what is usually a really tasty encounter, even if you’re not a fan of either team, there is always something to do and see for fans of the sport, and a decent band during the break always helps.

Wembley without a full crowd is a soulless void of concrete with a nice green oblong of grass in the middle.

A soulless concrete void with a green oblong

A soulless concrete void with a green oblong

Credit to those Catalan fans (and those from other clubs sporting “Dragon for a day” tee shirts) who did their utmost to create an atmosphere, but really? I’m not certain Wembley would have filled 90,000 if it had been both Hull clubs in the final, let alone Wigan v St Helens.

Its played on a bank holiday weekend during the English school summer holidays. The RFL needs to look again at perhaps moving it back to its traditional May date, and hold it away from Wembley.

The London Stadium would be a better venue.

The former home of the Olympic games has been configured for a ball game, has superb transport links, has already hosted a big rugby league event and is easily big enough to accommodate a match of the stature of the Challenge cup. It holds 57,000 people, and given the outward lack of concern from the RFL about fan numbers, it seems perfect to move the game away from Wembley, keep it in London and actually fill a stadium.

May though is Magic Weekend.

I want to see the Magic Weekend stay in Newcastle, as St James park is perfect, but I think it’ll be moved in 2019, probably to the Etihad in Manchester as part of the RFL move to the campus full time, but surely, Magic Weekend can be moved to accommodate an early season final for the Challenge Cup?

From small acorns…

There is room at West Ham for a decent fan park, as provided by Rugby AM when England played the Kiwis there a couple of years ago, and if anyone fancies a spot of shopping, there is the Westfield centre within walking distance.

Sadly, the lack of imagination from the RFL means that they won’t even consider a move away from Wembley.

Perhaps if the mooted break away from the RFL by the top flight happens it will stir some action from Red Hall, but somehow, I cant see the breakaway happening either.

For too long, the sport I love has stagnated from the top down. It’s high time that there was some new thinking at all levels.

Next years Challenge cup final?

Not unless Hull KR are playing.

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Rhinos miserable season continues

Rugby league can be a cruel mistress…

One minute, you’re celebrating as Champions, the next, you’re in the bottom four, staring at possible relegation and get dumped out of the Challenge Cup by Warrington Wolves.

Leeds looked nothing like the Champions of October as they were well and truly beaten by Warrington in the second of today’s semi finals at the University of Bolton stadium.

With rugby union returnee Josh Charnley and Tom Lineham both grabbing a pair of tries, Leeds were always on the back foot.

Perhaps its telling that director of rugby Kevin Sinfield isn’t putting his name forward for the job of head coach on a full time basis, as his side capitulated 48-12.

For their part, Warrington never looked troubled during the 80 minutes, and could have broken the 50 point barrier if Ben Westwood had brought his shooting boots for the final kick of the game.

Warrington will go into the showpiece final in three weeks time hoping that their opponents, Catalan Dragons, have a similar sort of day at the office Leeds did.

Given how often Wolves fans start the season saying “its our year”, perhaps this year, where the Challenge cup is concerned, it might well be.

 

Dragons slay Saints to book place at Wembley

In the searing heat of a Bolton Summer, Catalan Dragons put the (almost) invincible St Helens to the sword.

Have the Saints peaked too early, or did the men of Langtree Park just not fancy a weekend in the Capital?

Either way, Catalan Dragons looked irresistible at Bolton today as they ran riot in the first half and left Justin Holbrook and his men in the dust as they ran out 16-35 winners in the first of a double header of semi finals today.

A rugby pitch has nowhere to hide, and when Morgan Knowles saw a yellow card with just under six minutes left of the first half, Catalan made the Saints pay.

With a 27 point lead going into the break, it looked like a long second half for the Saints fans, and so it proved.

When the final hooter went, it was the French fans who were celebrating a second visit to Wembley.

Steve McNamara was dripping with both sweat and praise for his players at full time.

“We’re probably the only club who’ve not won a trophy” he told the BBC.

It means so much to us. Perpignan is such a beautiful place and it’ll mean so much for the sport in France”

Coming on the back of winning 9 games from their last 11, the bookies still had Catalan as second best by a distance, but semi finals are one off games where anything can happen, and so it came to be.

Now, Who will the Dragons face in the final on the 25th of August?

The Wolves or the Rhinos?

 

Leeds Rhinos fire Brian McDermott. Good move, Bad Move?

Having taken the Rhinos to at least one final per season and led Leeds for 265 games since taking over in 2011, Andrew Riley asks if it was just a season too far for the former Royal Marine.

A couple of seasons ago, Leeds were beaten by Salford Devils, and in the press conference, I asked Brian McDermott if he felt his job was secure and if he felt that he had done all he could with the club.

He answered with his usual honesty and clarity that he still felt he was the right man for the job and he felt they could still make it to the Grand Final.

As it was, that season they went on to win the Challenge cup that year, failing to make the grand final, but still collecting silverware.

As I picked up my recorder, Brian looked at me and with an all too rare public smile, said “Tossed a few grenades in there, didn’t you?”

It was the first time I’d seen a slight crack in his usual taciturn public exterior.

Other writers who had more interaction with the man will tell you of his wit and how he was always approachable, and for my part I always found him to be open and honest.

Leeds are a club that has become unaccustomed during the summer era to losing. That Brian took charge for over 250 matches, shows just how successful the club had become under both his and Gary Hetherington’s combined leadership.

Just watch the documentary on Amazon Prime, “As Good As It Gets” to see the sort of loyalty McDermott inspired amongst his players. Even a non sporting person cannot fail to see just how he inspired players to achieve more than they felt they could.

Yes, this season Leeds have been beset by a virtually unprecedented injury list, but then don’t all clubs have to contend with injury problems?

His record speaks for itself.

265 games, 162 wins and 97 losses.

An impressive record in any sport, but sadly, this season, having lost another pair of talismanic players in Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire his team have failed to edge out tight games, and losing 7 in a row was just too much this time for Mr Hetherington.

Given the mooted changes for the 2019 season (Nobody actually knows what the league structure will look like yet, which is a travesty for a professional sport) Leeds were worried about being dragged into a possible relegation fight, with a number of Championship clubs determined to secure Super League status, the chance was too great and so Brian had to go.

This was a man whose silverware record reads:

Four Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups, a League Leaders’ Shield and a World Club Challenge.

Chief executive Gary Hetherington said the club would “forever be indebted” to McDermott.

“The club’s most successful coach has also helped to forge a rugby operation with toughness, resilience and a strong desire to succeed, which his successor will inherit,” said Hetherington.

“Eight years is a long time for any head coach at the same club and we have enjoyed much success and endured some difficult times along the way when tough decisions had to be made.

“We have always come through strongly but I do believe our present predicament requires change and that this is the right call for the club.

“Brian is a man of the utmost integrity and passion for rugby league. He has so much to offer the sport and I have no doubt he will go on to achieve more success in the future.”

For his part, McDermott had this to say:

“Obviously it is not a decision I agree with,” said McDermott.

“I am extremely disappointed this has happened. I wish everyone at the club the best and my thoughts will be with the team on Sunday and through to the end of the season.”

England to face French test ahead of Kiwi series

The RFL today announced an additional international game ahead of the three game series against the Kiwis, with the French national team to visit the UK.

England Rugby League Elite Men’s squad will face France at Leigh Sports Village on Wednesday, October 17 (KO 7.45pm) in preparation for the Autumn International Series against New Zealand.

After defeating the Kiwis 36-18 in front of a crowd of 19,320 at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado in the first international Rugby League game to be staged in the USA for 18 years, this game against France will be the first time UK supporters will be able to watch the World Cup finalists in action in this country since the 2016 Four Nations.

France played in The 2017 Rugby League World Cup in the same group as England, Lebanon and defending champions Australia. France got off to the worst possible start, suffering a shock loss to Lebanon 29-18 in Canberra. The tournament did not get any better for The French as they were then thumped 52-6 by Australia and then suffered another big defeat to England 36-6 in Perth.

England head coach Wayne Bennett will be hoping the French offer a sterner test this time around.

In 2015, Leigh Sports Village hosted England v France as a warm up fixture prior to the Autumn International Series against the Kiwis that saw England lift the Baskerville Shield, whilst it also staged games during the 2013 RLWC.

Director of Rugby, Kevin Sinfield said, “2018 is a hugely important year for England Rugby League and the mid-season test against Denver was the first step in building on the success of reaching the World Cup final in 2017.

“The Denver Test showed the appetite for International Rugby League away from the UK and Australia and the victory against New Zealand showed that we’re heading in the right direction as a team.

“The French Tests have been good for us over the last couple of years and it’s great to have another game lined up on home soil ahead of the Autumn Series. It will give the team the chance to regroup after the end of the season before we face New Zealand again.”

Tickets for the game against France are on sale now at rugby-league.com and are priced at £20 for Adults and £5 for Juniors. ‘Our League’ members can purchase tickets and save 50% on both Adult and Junior prices. Visit rugby-league.com/tickets for more details and to book.

Tickets for this Autumn’s International Series against New Zealand are also on sale at rugby-league.com/tickets and are priced from £25 for adults and £12.50 for concessions. ‘Our League’ members will get £5 off all ticket categories when purchased through the Our League App or website.

Our League members can also take advantage of an exclusive offer which gives them 3 games for the price of 2, visit rugby-league.com/tickets for more information.

Whats your State of Mind?

As the State of Mind charity prepares to take over the Super League for an entire round, Andrew Riley went along to the AJ Bell stadium in Salford to see what the charity does and how you can be part of a world record attempt this coming Wednesday…

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Magic is on the move, but where should it go?

After a successful few years in Newcastle, it looks like the RFL are keen to move on. Andrew Riley looks at a couple of the places mentioned.

A lot of fans will tell you that Newcastle has been a roaring success as a venue for Magic Weekend, and, as someone who covered two seasons up there, I’d agree. As venues go, its a corker!

Easy access to the bars and restaurants of Newcastle, a fan zone that has developed into a great place to meet up and chat with fellow fans from other clubs, and of course Rugby AM.

Given that the event was derided by some at its inception, the RFL have worked wonders to turn it into one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

For me its up there with the Grand final and the Challenge Cup final as an event in its own right.

Back in 2007 just over 59,000 watched 6 super league matches over two days in Cardiff, and hardly anyone outside of the sport thought it was going to be viable to carry on, but the following season, again, in the capital of the principality, over 63,000 hardy souls made the trip.

After two years, it was decided that a move North was needed & the event landed in Edinburgh for two seasons.

In 2011 however, it returned to Cardiff, but this time it was as the opening round of the season, and after criticism of the “seeding” of games, it was decided that local derbies would form the weekend.

The attendance was however down on the previous years, with just 60,214 heading to Wales in February.

Next up was Manchester, and the Etihad stadium, home of Manchester City, and the matches reverted to a mid season set of derbies, rather than a season opener, over the bank holiday weekend.

This, and the fantastic weather, saw the largest ever crowd of 63,716 attend.

The event was to stay in Manchester for the following two years, growing in stature and attendance each time, 64,552 was the highest ever for a Magic Weekend, while the Saturday attendance of 36,339 was the highest ever single-day figure until both records were surpassed the consequent year in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Looking forward though, after four very successful years in Newcastle, the RFL are looking to move the event again, with Manchester being a front runner, and rumoured to be part of the deal which will see the RFL installed as tenants at the nearby “Sports City”.

From a purely personal point of view, I’d happily see it return to Manchester, as its a simple tram ride there and back, but many would see it as a backwards step, and are keen on taking it abroad, with Toronto, Dublin and even New York being mentioned.

I’m all for expanding the game, but are we at risk of doing damage to the sport by rushing to outposts (after all, we still don’t have a South Wales super league team, nor a Scottish team) that don’t really “get” the sport as yet.

I’ll admit, the Canadians have taken to the sport, and the possibility of a team in the Big Apple (not Bramley, the other one!) is a mouthwatering prospect, but if we’re going abroad, then for me, Florida has to be the option.

Fans can combine their holiday with a bit of rugby league, get a decent tan and maybe even take in a baseball game.

The universities there have stadia that put some of our grounds to shame, so finding a venue to suit everyone shouldn’t be a problem.

There is already a league structure in Florida, so the appetite is certainly growing for the sport there, and a fair old ex-pat community as well.

For me though, the weekend SHOULD stay in Newcastle. Its just feels right.

Thunder playing on the Friday followed by a complete round of games. Rather than derbies though, I’d make the build up to the weekend all that much better by drawing the games out of a hat a couple of weeks before, and turning the draw into the sort of media event that the Challenge Cup has become.