If you’re looking for some rugby league action over the festive period, the BARLA Yorkshire Cup Final is not to be missed.
THE forthcoming BARLA Yorkshire Cup Final, in which Hunslet ARLFC will face Mirfield at the Millenium Stadium, Featherstone on Saturday 30 December, is a reminder of when a real highlight of the Christmas period was the three County Cup deciders.
While the Yorkshire final was high-profile, the same could certainly be said of the Cumbria and Lancashire deciders.
All were, without doubt, blue riband occasions and attracted big crowds, as they had done for many years.
One factor in that was the knowledge that the victor, in the case of the Lancashire and Yorkshire affairs at least, would qualify for inclusion in the first round of the Challenge Cup, making up the numbers to the ideal 32 from what was, for many years, 30 professional outfits.
It really was a big deal – a huge thing in fact – for an amateur side to get that far, even if they rarely progressed any further (a notable exception was in 1959/60 when Walney Central and Lock Lane were drawn together at the opening stage. Walney prevailed 10-5 before losing 55-4 at Oldham in the second round)
For my money, the Rugby Football League should, regarding amateur involvement in the Challenge Cup, change involvement from invitation to qualification, via the County Cups. That simple act could regenerate the Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire competitions (and, perhaps, others – why not have, for example, a Southern Cup, and a maybe a North East/Scotland Cup?).
Right now, though, I’ve got the 2023 Yorkshire Cup Final on my mind, while also reflecting on top White Rose occasions of the past.
We need look back no further than last January for one of the great finals, even if folk Fryston way might not quite see it that way. The Warriors looked certain winners, midway through the second period, at 26-4 ahead against Normanton Knights. But, astonishingly and incredibly, the Castleford outfit then collapsed. Sparked by a sinbinning, Fryston quickly conceded one try, then another and, as can be the way with these things, spirits rose remarkably in the Normanton ranks, while Fryston’s fortunes tumbled.
Somehow – and I still have a vivid memory of my old friend Alan Simpson, who has enjoyed grassroots Rugby League for many a decade, calling me that night to express his astonishment about one of the most amazing games he had ever seen – the Knights got right back into the game and, in the closing seconds, scored a try in the corner to level matters.
Charlie Barker, who had been generally off-target with his previous conversion attempts, made no mistake with the most crucial shot of all. And Normanton were, against all the odds after having looked down and out, 28-26 winners.
A number of other Yorkshire Cup Finals also come to mind. One was in 1996, shortly after I’d first started covering the amateur game, when Clayton met Queens at Headingley. This game was memorable more for the crowd than for the on-field action (Queens prevailed 13-9) as it was big – very big.
No official figures were given but I think I estimated the attendance at somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000, which to my mind is as it should be for what is without doubt one of Rugby League’s major occasions.
Another final which sticks in my memory was that between Queens and Sharlston Rovers at (I think) Belle Vue, Wakefield in 2007/8.
Queens had, let’s be honest, a certain reputation for being physical. It seemed to me that Rovers came out ready to fight (almost literally) fire with fire. The north Leeds side, though, on that occasion ignored that aspect and simply got on with playing good football, winning deservedly in what seemed to me to be an object lesson in selecting the right strategic approach.
One final that was, without question, extremely physical was the one between Featherstone Lions and Siddal in 1997. Both teams were very, very wound up for the match before kick-off (Siddal in particular looked close to being out of control) and the contest was one of the most torrid I’ve ever seen. I actually stuck my head above the parapet by backing the players up in my report, comparing them to the stalwarts portrayed in the film `Zulu’, which was on the telly later that evening and which possibly affected my thinking. I might have gone over the top a shade by taking that stance; what I couldn’t condone in any way, though, was the fighting that took place in the stand, which was upsetting and totally unacceptable. It was an occasion that Richard Agar, who was at stand-off for 9-6 winners Featherstone that day, still recalls, and it’s not surprising. Nor will it be surprising if the players of Lindley Swifts, who staged a real upset by topping hot favourites Hunslet Warriors in the 2000 decider, still joyously recall that occasion.
Sadly for me, I’ve only limited experience of Lancashire Finals, and none of Cumbrian deciders.
I went to one Red Rose decider, back in 2006, when Blackbrook of St Helens met Wigan St Cuthberts. Blackbrook won fairly comfortably in the end (although their 30-0 success was ground out more than anything) but the occasion, at Liverpool St Helens RUFC (where Ray French was among the host club’s volunteers) was superb. It’s a tremendous shame that the Lancashire Cup was shelved a few years ago.
The Cumbria Cup, meanwhile, continues (in fact there are several knockout competitions in place in the far north west) but, since the advent of summer rugby, the final no longer takes place around Christmas. Perhaps that will change if – or as – global warming continues.
How will the 2023 Yorkshire Final compare with those of previous years? I suspect that neither Mirfield nor Hunslet ARLFC will be too bothered about the quality of the entertainment; both will be keener on trying to win. But the match will, I reckon, be compelling and I suspect that Rugby League fans, even those who usually only watch professional fare, will be there in numbers to take in some serious action in which there is plenty at stake.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)