First published in League Express, Monday 2nd Sept 2013
If you wanted to experience everything that is good about Championship Rugby League, you could do a lot worse than have been present at the Featherstone-Sheffield game last week.
The top two sides in the competition went head-to-head with the League Leaders’ title at stake, and produced a thrilling spectacle worthy of any level of the sport in this country.
It was a game that had everything – tension, passion, excitement, atmosphere, and skill.
Though Featherstone’s win was virtually assured midway through the second half, it was also a match that was effectively decided with just 21 seconds remaining.
Because Rovers needed to win by more than 13 points to deny Sheffield a bonus point and take the box seat for first place, Will Sharp’s last-gasp effort was every bit as important as a winning drop-goal could be.
You can say what you like about the bonus point, and I admit, I still change my mind regularly. My main point has always been that if we’re going to have it, then it should be the same across every professional league.
But, love it or hate it, the bonus point system contributed hugely to the spectacle at the Big Fellas Stadium on Wednesday, because everyone inside the ground was acutely aware of its importance for this particular match.
Had Mark Aston’s Eagles hung on in those closing stages, a bonus point would have left them in control of their own destiny going into the weekend’s games.
But when Andy Kain flighted one last kick towards Vinny Finigan’s wing – a tactic Rovers had employed all night, with mixed success – Will Sharp’s salmon-like leap and catch sent the big home crowd into raptures.
That attendance deserves mention as well, announced officially at 3,890. They ensured a crackling atmosphere from the start that gave the game a genuine “big match” feel.
Featherstone have made plenty of bold claims lately about their Super League credentials – prematurely in some people’s eyes, given London Broncos’ still uncertain future.
But it was difficult not to be impressed by what the club could have to offer on Wednesday night. Certainly this writer has been to plenty of top-flight matches this year that have lacked the on-field quality and sense of occasion that this game held.
Sheffield played their full part too – a team in every sense of the word under Mark Aston, and one that will still be eyeing repeat Grand Final success in the coming weeks.
They hung in there, even while being dominated during the second half, and mounted a two-try salvo late in the contest that looked to have secured the bonus point they needed.
But, thanks to Sharp, it was not to be, and these two sides could yet meet again in the play-offs.
You could see exactly what finishing top meant to Featherstone players and supporters alike when Sharp’s last-minute effort was confirmed by the video-referee Ian Smith.
After three consecutive seasons finishing first, they were clearly intent on maintaining their remarkable run.
Recently appointed football manager Sean Long also seemed to enjoy the result, and his presence at the club offers a real X-factor for the play-offs.
Having said that, they certainly won’t just be about Featherstone and Sheffield. Leigh Centurions showed in the Northern Rail Cup final that they are capable of winning the biggest of matches at this level, and Halifax haven’t been far away all season.
Throw resurgent Batley into the mix – they looked the most likely of the top eight’s ‘bottom four’ to progress – and we could yet have a few more matches ahead of us to relish.
That game, and countless others, illustrate exactly what people at this level of the sport have known for years.
There is too much on offer from the leading Championship clubs for them to be restricted to one team being offered the chance of progress every three seasons.
Surely nobody present at Featherstone on Wednesday night could argue with that.