This weekend the greatest show on Earth

By Daniel Andruczyk

This weekend Rugby Leagues pinnacle in the domestic game comes to a close for another year. It comes to a close, but it will go out with such a bang that it makes the “spectacle” of State of Origin look like a high school production. Yes its that time of year again… Challenge Cup Final. So I thought I would share some of my memories and thoughts from when I went to the final in 2008 and some of the early round games.

The Challenge Cup is Rugby League oldest running tournament, played first in the 1896-1897 season and in the UK and Europe is considered the ultimate prize in Rugby League. Its a tournaments that pits teams that are not only professional, but semi professional and Amateur against each other in a knock out format over the course of 6 months. Games are played right throughout the country and continent with the ultimate eye on the prize being that weekend in August at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 fans of Rugby League.

I say Rugby League since you find a mix of not just fans from the two participating clubs but fans from all other clubs who are there to celebrate the sport in all its glory. I have seen many games around the world and no where have I seen anything come close to the Challenge Cup final. Not even State of Origin. Where SoO looks to divide and conquer, The Challenge Cup is about unifying the game, bringing together all its fans and supporters. But more on that latter.

My first experiences of the Challenge Cup were years ago when I watched games on TV, shown on delay or videos shown of past glorious games. When living overseas I made sure that aside from the Final I also made it out to some of the earlier rounds. My first was to travel all the way to the Cumbrian city of Barrow-in-Furness. This was actually also to see a friend who lives there but I was able to kill three birds with the one stone: See my friend, see a Challenge Cup game and see a French team play (at that point I didn’t know how many times I would end up travelling to France to see games).

S5004271Round 4 Challenge Cup tie, Whitehaven against Lezignan.

The match I saw was up in Whitehaven, which actually is a town north of Barrow, which saw Whitehaven take on the French League leaders Lezignan. Lezignan actually went on to take the French Elite 1 title a month later in Bezier which I went to as well. One of the reasons that made me want to see this particular match was that there were many ex-Cronulla players, any one that know me know I love my Sharkies, and it was funny seeing one of the Sharks and indeed the NRL’s hard ex-men running out in a fluoro-pink jersey. See the attraction of the Challenge Cup for many is that regular teams can play against the best team and that a small local ground can host games. Here the Recreation Ground was the stadium, the local ground for Whitehaven. It was a freezing April afternoon and was spent more drinking hot coffee and tea than drinking beer, just to keep warm. But it was a great afternoon for the locals with Whitehaven running out convincing winners over the Sangliers 46-6.

Last year I also went out to Leigh to watch the Centurions take on Lokomotive Moscow at the Leigh Sport Village. A nice shiny new stadium that the Centurions had built and hope to get into Super League with, the home ground advantage and superior ball skills saw them overpower the Russians by 70 plus points. But despite that the crowd cheered each time the Russians took the ball up and would make a break, showing that the despite being rivals the sport brings everyone together. Its great to see that the Challenge Cup is able to bring teams from several countries together and give them a chance to play and experience that is needed to make it at the top.

S5008041The walk up Wembley Way to the stadium.

However the greatest Challenge Cup match I saw was the 2008 final at Wembley. The whole weekend was just an amazing experience. Flying into London on Thursday night, it was obvious straight away something different was happening. There were Rugby League jerseys everywhere and not just Hull FC and St Helens ones (the two teams in the final) but jerseys from the whole spectrum of rugby league including NRL and Elite1 jerseys! The pubs were full of fellow Rugby League fans all talking about how great it was being back at the Sports Spiritual Home. I met up with a fellow friend, Simon, who is an Oldham fan, but still made the trip down. That year was the World Cup year and every pub we went to through the weekend there were two questions. Who would win the final and if England would make it all the way in the World Cup.

Friday was the first of the RFL weekend matches. The local Championship team, London Skolars, play their last home game of the season on this weekend and always throw a big barbeque and party. Their biggest crowd for the year tends to be this game with a couple thousand turning up. They also have many of the Rugby League collectors come out to display and sell things, so you can always pick up some interesting books, photos and jerseys. I managed to grab a Liban Espoir 2008 Jersey as well as a couple of books on French Rugby League and the history of the Rugby Union/Northern Union split. Anyway it was a great game, Skolars, though losing to Keighley that afternoon put up a great fight and the crowd were firmly on the home sides… um side. The thing I love about European Rugby League, and Australian Rugby League does not have this I find, is the atmosphere that they generate. Each team seems to have chants for all other teams that fans sing through games and cheers. A small crowd of only a couple thousand can sound like ten! And there is never a quiet moment (If you watch Super League on TV you can get a pretty good idea of it).

S5008045Wembley Stadium, the heart and home of Rugby League.

The next day was the big day. So the morning was spent making a quick tour of the Museum for Natural History. A pretty amazing building with spectacular displays of… well everything! You name it they pretty much have it in there. After that it was on the tube up to Wembley and the famous walk up Wembley Way to the stadium. But of course on the way there are many Fan zones and pubs… and surprise, surprise bumped into a few friends from Hull! They are mad cap Rovers fans and always heaps of fun hanging out with them. All this and it was only midday, and two hours from the match. There was one very obvious thing I saw, everywhere, and that was the vast range of jerseys from many many clubs. I lost count when I got to about 50, and these were jerseys not just from the Super League, but the Championships (actually back then it was still the National League), Elite 1 and Australian Rugby League. I think my Liban Espoir jersey was the only one of its kind there.

Going into the stadium is was something else. Wembley is actually roughly the same design to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. The views are spectacular and it can hold about 90,000 people. A big shinny modern stadium that is befitting of being the home of The Greatest Game. Before the game the traditional Rugby League anthems were sung, Jerusalem and abide with me, also England’s World Cup “song” was launched. As the teams came on a chant of “Go You Saints” started up and hearing it echo around the stadium brought a chill to it was something amazing to hear. After God Save The Queen was sung it was Kick off and another chant started up. The first few minutes it was a tense start the crowds a bit quiet but soon enough after a few minutes the chats started up. Below you can see my YouTube clip of the final to try and get a bit of an idea of the atmosphere

It was beautiful to see the game played in Wembley. Saint Helens were going for their third Challenge Cup win in a row… well they did win it in the end. It was history in the making, being the first team to win 3 successive Challenge Cups in the Super League era. The game was in the balance for most of the match but in the end St Helens was able to edge away and beat the Airley Birds 28-16. Watching Keiron Cunningham lift that trophy’s was something else. The whole experience was so unique. Back in Australia there is nothing like it. State of Origin for all the hype it gets does not come close to the atmosphere and whole weekend staged to what the Challenge Cup is.

S5008079 The action in the 2008 Challenge Cup Final, St Helens in the Blue and Hull FC in black and white.

Despite the loss the Hull fans seemed in good spirits, as we were walking back down Wembley Way, some of the fans found a common subject to have everyone join in “If you all hate Wigan clap your hands” and then thousands of people around starting to clap in unison… funny moment. Despite that though I can see why the Challenge Cup has such a strong place in the heart of the British fans. A tournament where a slight slip up by a team, even the best can end their dream, where to win the tournament you have to be the best through the whole duration, and provides a different way to see the game as opposed to the league structure. Where the whole Rugby League family come together as one to celebrate the sport is something unique and wonderful. I have met few fans in Australia that know and have experienced this and when you say Challenge Cup final to them you see that longing and memory to be there once more… and many do make the trip back again.

This years Challenge Cup final between Warrington and Leeds, I will be on my couch with a beer or two on hand thousands of kilometre’s away watching on my big screen, but wile that game is being played for a short time I will close my eyes and go back to 2008 and relive the moment of the best game of Rugby League I ever went to.

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