Page XIII: A Grand Day Out

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 438 (Oct 2017)

If every person who raised an eyebrow, tutted or took to social media to have a bit of a moan about the size of the attendance at this year’s Challenge Cup final committed themselves to buying a ticket (plus one for a friend) for next year’s event, we could probably fill Wembley twice over.
And after a final as good as the one we were served up by Hull FC and Wigan on a glorious August Bank Holiday weekend, who wouldn’t want to be there to enjoy it all in person next time round?
Honestly, if you missed it, you missed a treat.
It seemed odd walking down Wembley Way, more packed than it has seemed for many years, that the game should end up being played out in front of a crowd that, based on the official attendance figure, was the smallest we’ve seen at the ‘new’ Wembley (though bigger than the crowd at Twickers for the final between St Helens and Huddersfield that immediately preceded the return to the Challenge Cup’s spiritual home).
Perhaps it’s to do with the change in status of Club Wembley, aka the ‘ring of indifference’, the middle tier of seats previously reserved for debenture ticket holders and presumably included in attendance figures whether they turned up or not (which mostly, they didn’t) whereas this year, those tickets were on open sale.
In my view, the decision to open Club Wembley was vindicated by the improvement in the overall atmosphere inside the stadium, which was the best I can remember.
I always attend Wembley as a fan, buying my own ticket, rather than as a member of the press with a seat in the press box, as I don’t report on the match myself and it gives me the freedom to roam around on the day, getting the same view as the fans of the competing clubs and the neutrals without whom the Challenge Cup final just wouldn’t be the same.
In a strange twist of fate though, upon taking my seat I found myself sat on the row immediately in front of the press box anyway, and passed a bit of time chatting to colleagues from League Express before the action started.
I love the build up to a big game. For me, it’s as important as the match itself, setting the scene for the grand occasion to follow. It was a real shame there was a mix up with the timing of the music on ‘Abide With Me’ which is always such a central part of proceedings at Wembley, and you had to feel a bit sorry for the young woman who had won a competition for the privilege of singing the Challenge Cup final hymn, to be left high and dry at her starring moment.
It was a delight to see Ellery Hanley as guest of honour. I saw him play during his early career at Bradford Northern, and he looked something special even then. Look up the try he scored for Northern against Featherstone Rovers in the 1983 semi-final on Youtube for evidence of that. Of course, he went on to prove himself a colossus of the sport with Wigan, Leeds and Great Britain, a Golden Boot winner, a bona fide superstar and rarely seen in public these days, which perhaps adds to his semi-mythic status. In Rugby League, we often laud the approachability and down to earth nature of most of our players, but does this actually work against them in terms of building them into superstars? Maybe, but there’ll only ever be one Ellery Hanley.
The match itself was a cracker. Ok, there were probably a few too many handling errors for the purist’s palate, and there are none so grudging as Rugby League fans when it comes to awarding the title ‘classic’ to any game (we’re more likely to grumble about what we didn’t like, than praise what we did like) but come on, a major final that could have gone either way in the dying seconds, heart in the mouth time for every partisan in the audience, what more could you want for your money?
I told the bloke behind the counter at the tea bar before kick-off, who engaged me in polite conversation while he prepared my brew, that I thought the final score would be 14-10 to Hull. I got the margin right, if not the score, and kicked myself for not backing my instincts with a flutter at the sponsors’ kiosk.
On balance, I think Hull FC deserved the win, and Marc Sneyd the Lance Todd Trophy as the main difference between the teams. Hard to believe it took them so long to win at Wembley, and now they’ve done it twice in succession.
After the long drive home, I watched it all again on TV. The Beeb’s coverage was good, but it’s just not the same as being there.