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The joy of the Rugby League Cup Final
By Martin "ee, put some more coal in t'bath" Kelner on Sep 21, 2014 - 7:18:43 PM

There's an old joke about a lorry driver from a small village in the North of England making his first ever delivery, a load of timber, to London.   He leaves the motorway, winds down the window, and shouts to a passer-by, "Is this London?" "Yes it is," responded the nonplussed pedestrian. "Well, where do you want this wood, then?" asked the driver.


Like all the best jokes, it works because there's a germ of truth in it.   Not so much these days maybe, but there was a time when the Capital was alien territory to many in the North.   When the North was Britain's industrial powerhouse, producing the coal, iron and steel, and cotton and wool fabrics on which the wealth of the Empire was founded, there was no great imperative to hit the road south. In fact, about the only time the two nations collided was on Rugby League Challenge Cup final day, the North's great day out, or in many cases, weekend away.


Through the long, hard winter, supporters would pay a small amount each week to the supporters' club, the charabanc and hotel would be booked, and amid massive excitement, the great odyssey would begin.  


I grew up as a fan of Swinton, just outside Manchester.   The team never made it to Wembley - and we seem even more unlikely to now - but that didn't stop my dad and me joining the evacuation of the North for the final in late April or early May.   It's part of what makes the Challenge Cup a unique occasion, the least partisan of any cup final, and the most fun.  


Fans of all the teams in the league, even lower league teams like mine, and amateurs - all of whom theoretically have a chance of making it to the final but realistically won't - book their tickets well in advance and proudly sport their team's colours on the day knowing that will result in nothing more toxic than good-natured badinage.


The first final my father took me to was a cracker, Wigan v Hunslet in 1965, a classic David and Goliath clash pitting unfancied outsiders from one of Leeds's less salubrious suburbs against perennial cup specialists making their ninth visit to the Twin Towers.  

It was the first time I had ever been to London, and because our budget wouldn't stretch to the West End, we spent the weekend - in common with many coachloads of fellow Northerners - in a cheaper, less fashionable area of London, Notting Hill (really!)


The fact the match itself, ending in a 20-16 win for Wigan, was so exciting was a bonus, alongside trips to Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussaud's.   It was full of long-range tries, the crucial one being from Wigan's flying Zimbabwean (then Rhodesia) winger Trevor Lake.  


But if the '65 final was the best of the decade, the most famous was three years later, the so-called watersplash final of 1968, an 11-10 win for Leeds over local rivals Wakefield. It had rained constantly in London every day in the week leading up to the final and began again during the match - this in itself was memorable, as imperfect memory insists it was always sunny for the final- leaving the pitch covered in puddles.


A hard-fought match stood at 11-7 for Leeds, when in the final minute Wakefield's Kenny Hirst slid over by the posts for a try (then worth three points) to make it 11-10 with a simple two-point conversion to come to win it for Wakefield.   The missed kick by Wakefield's Don Fox has passed into rugby league folklore.  


The normally reliable Fox, who had converted two more difficult chances earlier in the match, was in the latter stages of his career, and had made no secret of his wish to retire with a cup winners' medal.   The fact that he was the author of his own misfortune was something he never really recovered from.    


The silver lining for rugby league, if not for Fox, was that Eddie Waring's memorably empathetic commentary on the BBC's Grandstand somehow helped embed the Challenge Cup Final in the nation's sporting pantheon.   "He's a poor lad," said Waring, as the disconsolate player trooped off, and team-mates and rivals alike tried to offer succour.  


These were pictures - without wishing to sentimentalise the game too much - that cemented in the public consciousness the idea that the rugby league cup final, however much participants might knock seven bells out of each other, was essentially a family occasion, hotly contested but in an atmosphere of mutual respect.   And why would it not be?   When players were part-timers, right up till the early '90s, you would sometimes find opponents who worked down the same pit.  


Featherstone Rovers was the archetypal coal mining team.   It used to be said that if they were looking for a new half-back they'd just whistle down the nearest coalmine and one would emerge.   So when Rovers made it to Wembley in 1983, the 14-12 victory over Hull was doubly sweet, with mining in decline - this was just a year before the national strike that more or less put paid to the industry - and genuine fear of job losses in the offing.  


The small town (pop: 15,000) literally emptied on cup final day, locals travelling more in hope than expectation that their relegation-threatened team could overturn big city opposition bolstered by a trio of big name imports from Down Under.   The win came when Rovers' Peter Smith suffered a head butt - it's not always completely benign - and Steve Quinn kicked the resultant penalty.


Shocks have been less frequent in the past couple of decades, although the rugby league world was rocked in 1998, when Wigan, shortest price favourites ever at 1-14, lost to Sheffield Eagles, a club with little history and negligible support.  


The Eagles' 17-8 triumph brought coach John Kear, credited with masterminding the unlikely success, to wider notice and he went on to coach the national side, while chairman Tim Adams made the bookies pay for their disrespect, having put £1,000 on his team at 33-1.


The great thing about the rugby league cup final is that, through all its changes, it has lost none of its lustre.   Sure, the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in the Autumn is a great night, but because the final sees the game move out of its northern heartland for the day - a bold and inspired move in 1929, when Wigan and Dewsbury contested the first contest at Wembley - it will never cease to be a special day in the rugby league calendar, and I warrant there will be some northern kid just as excited to be in the Capital as I was 50 years ago.







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