So as the crowds drift away down Wembley way and the sun sets on the 2019 edition of the Challenge Cup it leaves me to reflect on my experience of the competition this year, as the dedicated SLP correspondent for the cup and as a fulfilment of my pledge to attend a game from every round, made in the dim and distant past of January.
The start of this year’s journey was actually the shortest distance I had to travel. The trip down to Lock Lane to see one of the best teams from the community game here in England match up against the best of Ireland, as the Longhorns came to a cold and very windy Castleford. I have to say this phase of the competition is probably my favourite. We see the well-known and established community clubs rubbing shoulders with the best teams from outside the traditional areas invited to take part. Whilst Red Star Belgrade might have taken up the vast majority of attention, column inches and commemorative t-shirts, I was looking forward to seeing how the Irish champions would do. This romance of the cup feeds my general enthusiasm for the game as the new year begins. When everything is exciting. When we read far too much into pre-season games. When we hold great hopes for our teams’ seasons to come. For the game itself, it was actually much closer than I thought it would be, with the Longhorns putting up a good fight before just falling short. Lock Lane 16 Longhorns 10.
A round two trip to another local club in East Leeds followed. East Leeds 16 Dewsbury Moor 20. Before a third round encounter at Cougar Park, which saw one of the surviving community sides in Distington take on the revived Keighley side, in some of the most changeable weather I have ever seen. The inevitable mud bath that followed played a part in keeping the game close, with Keighley coming out on top. Keighley 28 Distington 14.
The unavoidable trip to Fev’ followed (if a cup run doesn’t go through Featherstone has it even really happened?) to see the Lions comfortably beaten by Doncaster. Featherstone Lions 6 Doncaster 46.
Then, the greatest comeback since Lazarus was witnessed at Odsal. Bradford looked dead and buried with 10 minutes to go, before a blitz of effort and sheer good luck brought us level. We saw a touchline conversion in the last minute, before a 40 metre drop goal from ice cool Jordan Lilley to send the bulls to the next round. I happily admit I absolutely lost it, in what will be one of my all-time best memories of league, not just from this year’s cup run. Bradford 27 Featherstone 26.
Whilst the sixth round would see the Bulls back at Odsal with the mouth-watering tie against Leeds, I headed to Dewsbury on the Friday night to see Bradford’s eventual opponents in the quarter final. Halifax comfortably disposed of the Rams under the floodlights. Whilst attention might have been elsewhere for this round, the match was well supported. Especially by the ‘fax fans and one particularly vocal female Halifax fan - her opinion of the referee’s abilities will be another abiding memory of this year. Dewsbury 6 Halifax 34.
After the highs against Leeds, the low of the quarter final was a harsh bump back to reality, as Halifax made it through the all-Championship quarter final. Whilst an obvious disappointment on a personal note, the Leeds game did spark an interest back into my Dad to attend the quarter final after several years of disenfranchisement from his perspective following our financial issues. The magic of the cup can do wonderful things. Bradford 16 Halifax 20.
Whilst I think the event experience could be improved, and the damp weather certainly didn’t help, it was great to attend both semi finals to whet the appetite for the showdown at Wembley over the bank holiday weekend. Warrington 22 Hull FC 14, St Helens 26 Halifax 2.
You could hardly experience a greater weather contrast between the semis and few final. The sun shone, as it always seems to at Wembley, and we saw the form book turned on its head for Warrington’s third cup win in the past 10 years. Saints fans were left ruing yet another disappointing performance in a showpiece event. Yes the crowd number is a frustration, but I thought the atmosphere was good, and it was still an enjoyable experience for me in my ninth visit to the Challenge Cup final. St Helens 4 Warrington 18.
Overall, I would strongly recommend this type of challenge to anyone who is a fan of the game beyond a purely parochial support of their own team. I saw three new grounds, re-visited a few familiar ones and I really gained a flavour of the distinct nature of the Challenge Cup, a unique part of the sport in the northern hemisphere.