August Bank Holiday weekend means only one thing in the rugby league calendar; The Challenge Cup Final! Leeds Rhinos a team full of top class players winners of 5 Superleague Finals and losers of 5 Challenge Cup Finals; the last win for the Rhinos had been in 1999 when they beat my team London Broncos, with a score line of 52 to 16. Castleford Tigers on the other hand hadn’t been at Wembley since 1992 when they played Wigan who were on a run of 8 successive wins. Their last victory had been in 1986 when they beat Hull KR by a narrow 1 point. Having been at both semi-finals and witnessing some of the worst behaviour I’ve ever seen at a rugby match by so called Widnes fans; I was looking forward to the wonderful atmosphere always present at the big game. It’s always good to see how many different club shirts you can spot as fans intermingle; I didn’t see too many London shirts but I did see a few which is always a good thing.
The formalities kicked off with a rendition of Abide With Me, a great tradition as the whole crowd stood and joined in. The players emerged to be greeted by their fans; it’s good to be a neutral at these games, part of me wanted to see Castleford one of the surprise packages of the season win the other to see Kevin Sinfield lift the trophy after so many years of heartache. Either way I hope it’d be a better game than last year when Hull really didn’t turn up. Once the players had been introduced to the dignitaries and the National Anthem sung we were ready for kick off. Phil Bentham, one of the best referees in rugby league in my opinion, was the man in charge.
Kirk Dixon of Castleford kicked off and Jamie Peacock stormed into the first tackle. Kevin Sinfield always gets more than his fair share of attention when kicking the ball on the last tackle, this game was clearly going to be no exception as he was battered as the ball left his hands. Andy Lynch came up with the 1st error of the game, dropping the ball as he was tackled deep in the Castleford half giving Leeds an attacking opportunity from just outside the Tigers 20m line. Leeds were denied on their 1st set of 6 largely due to Luke Dorn taking Danny McGuire over the line pushing the play back. A 2nd set however was capitalised on after the Rhinos spreads the ball out to Tom Briscoe, he scored in the corner. Kevin Sinfield stepped up to take the kick from the touch line, sending the ball sailing between the posts.
A penalty awarded at the play the ball gave Castleford their 1st opportunity to attack in the Leeds half; a good kick by Liam Finn saw Sinfield kick the ball dead, giving the Tigers another chance. Luke Dorn threw a dummy to make a great break, Justin Carney looked to have scored but Mr Bentham having spotted Danny McGuire pulling at Dorn’s shorts blew the whistle for a Tigers penalty as Carney scooted over. Castleford weren’t to be denied however as Daryl Clark pounced on the ball as it was kicked through by Marc Sneyd. One of the annoyances of league can be over use of the video ref, the try was referred in spite of the on pitch referee standing on just the right spot! Marc Sneyd who has one of the weirdest kicking styles I’ve ever seen, standing with his back to the posts missed what should have been a straightforward 2 points.
Leeds next score came from a set started in their own half after Ryan Hall who had looked sluggish against London Broncos the week before took the ball and made good ground from a high kick. Rob Burrows put in a high kick and Danny McGuire who knows how to score a try leapt in the air to take the ball from Luke Dorn who hadn’t really left the floor. Sinfield added the extras. Leeds dominated field possession with a good final kick each time; the 1st kick deep to the Leeds goal line was collected by Zak Hardaker who eluded a number of tackles to make it past the 40m line inside the Tigers half. A try felt inevitable and Ryan Hall literally powered his way across the line pushing back Kirk Dixon as he went over the line. A try that was totally about strength and power! The kick from the opposite line was missed by Sinfield. Leeds put in a clinical display leading to half time, Justin Carney was a lucky man for Castleford after he lifted Kallum Watkins by his legs above the horizontal. A repeat of the tackle that saw him suspended for the semi-final; looking at the tackle again on the TV a ‘take care’ should have been a yellow card! The man needs to learn how to tackle properly, spear tackles break necks, it should be a 10 minute rest, at least, every time! Castleford saw out the final moments of the half with the score on Leeds 16 Castleford 4, I would say that score was a relief with the majority of the play taking place in the Tigers half. The statistics at half time of the 2 Hookers tell the story of the half with Rob Burrows; Carries 18, Tackles 6, Runs From Dummy Half 14 and Daryl Clark; Carries 11, Tackles 21 and Runs From Dummy Half 8. It must have been a very weary Tigers team taking a welcome half time break.
The 2nd half started with a promising attack by Castleford after an uncharacteristic error by Zak Hardaker as he was tackled after collecting the ball. However the attack from the Leeds 20m line was wasted by a poor pass by Daryl Clark which went to the ground rather than hands. Leeds were not intending to get on the bus without the cup and their kick chase was proof of their intent; with the exception of a ball kicked out on the full by Sinfield their kicking game was immaculate as was the chase to defend the resulting attack. The Tigers attack from that error was followed by a missed tackle on Lee Jewitt; Michael Shenton broke after what looked like a certain forward pass by Luke Dorn, his inside pass to Oliver Holmes saw him make a strong run to score. The touch judge was in the right spot to see the forward pass but the try was awarded, it certainly livened up the crowd as the gap was closed to 6. For a good spell the game looked evenly balanced as Castleford found some of the form that sees them sitting in 5th place on Superleague. With 20 minutes remaining the possibility of a win for either team was a reality.
The pendulum swung back the way of Leeds as Ryan Hall in all his might scored his 199th career try as the Tigers defenders had the ridiculous notion that they could go high on him, he simply swatted 3 or 4 players off as if he was facing the Under 15’s! The conversion by Sinfield hit the posts twice before ricocheting in. At the age of 26 Ryan Hall is in his prime; it’s amazing to think he will reach that 200 mark before the season’s out. I wonder how many rugby union clubs have an eye on him, with his speed and strength he’s make a perfect centre; one that could be feared by many. To Castleford’s credit with 10 minutes remaining the win for Leeds still didn’t feel a forgone conclusion. Danny McGuire went down injured with 8 minutes on the clock after colliding with his own player as he was tackled; however he played on. Another spear tackle this time by Marc Sneyd on Jamie Jones Buchanan gave Leeds the field position they needed for Danny McGuire to seal the win with a drop goal. The delight shown by the Rhinos players with 42 losers’ medals between them was plain to see! Ryan Hall was voted as Lance Todd Trophy winner as man of the match but it could have been one of many, Jamie Peacock amongst them.
The look on Kevin Sinfield’s face as he lifted the trophy was priceless; it would take a very mean spirit to begrudge him that moment. At the 6th attempt for the core of this team the dream was achieved. The Castleford Tigers made a great game of it, certainly in the 2nd half, they’re a club that can only go higher and higher. For this Broncos fan? At last we can stop mentioning Leeds 52 to 16 win against my team!