League Express editor MARTYN SADLER anticipates a thrilling tactical battle between two fine coaches in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday, while he also discusses other current issues in Rugby League. This is his ‘Talking Rugby League’ column taken from this week’s issue of League Express.
Battle of the Coaches
Ian Watson and Richard Agar could both lay claim to being the leading English coach in Super League.
I’m sure some others, including Daryl Powell of Castleford, might dispute that claim.
But while Daryl could, with some justification, have claimed the title in 2017, when Castleford Tigers were so impressive in winning the League Leaders’ Shield, it’s fair to say his stock has probably fallen a little since then.
Although to be fair to Daryl, much of that decline in his team’s fortunes in the last three years has been down to a heavy burden of injuries.
Nonetheless, Watson and Agar are now the men in possession, with the pair set to do battle on Saturday with their respective teams.
Both coaches are good at analysing the opposition and devising game plans to beat them.
And both coaches seem to have mastered the art of managing their players to get the best out of them.
So in one sense, Saturday’s game will represent the unofficial coaching championship between Watson and Agar.
And then there are the many sub-plots.
The respective halfbacks – Lui and Gale for Leeds, and Lolohea and Brown for Salford – are packed with experience and there is the added factor of Lui and Lolohea having swapped clubs in 2019. Will Lolohea in particular be inspired to show Leeds that they made a mistake in trading him for Lui?
The Rhinos have a generally younger squad than the Red Devils, particularly in the forwards, and we have to ask whether they might just have too much energy for their rivals in the wide open spaces of Wembley.
I suspect they might, and Salford might leave the stadium on Saturday still looking for their first win in the Challenge Cup Final since 1938.
But I could so easily be wrong.
Super League’s difficult prospects
Super League Executive Chairman Robert Elstone, when he took the job on, was given a multitude of responsibilities.
But his main ones, as far as I can gather, were to negotiate a profitable new TV deal, either with Sky or with some other broadcaster, and to bring new investment into Super League, preferably by introducing private equity investment into the competition.
So far we have no news on whether he is close to achieving either of those objectives, although I seriously hope he is. The thought of a much diminished TV deal from 2022 hardly bears thinking about.
As I understand it, if the deal agreed is for £35 million per year or less, then the Championship clubs will not get a penny from it.
And that will be a cause of great concern for them and for the wider game.
The worrying thing is that Sky doesn’t seem to be concerned about promoting Super League these days, despite some scintillating action.
On the other hand, BT Sport have been mentioned by some people as having an interest in developing a channel devoted to rugby, that would incorporate both codes of rugby.
That would make a great deal of sense from the viewpoint of either Sky or BT Sport. In fact it would probably work better for Sky, given that the NRL is broadcast by Fox Sports in Australia, which is closely linked to Sky.
But sadly there is little evidence that Sky are looking in that particular direction.
One thing the new rules have done for Rugby League since the season has restarted has been to increase the rate of scoring.
The NRL introduced the six-again rule and in that competition we are now seeing more tries, with many of them being spectacular ones.
And the same thing is true of Super League.
In Round 15, for example, we have seen three try hat-tricks, from Joel Tomkins of the Catalans, Ash Handley of Leeds and Krisnan Inu of Salford.
The quality of entertainment is remarkably high, which makes it all the more puzzling that those who run the game can’t break through to a wider audience.
Check out our feature on page 27 of this issue about the last time Salford and Leeds won the Challenge Cup at Wembley.
In Salford’s case, we have to go back to 1938, when they beat Barrow 7-4.
But one of the fascinating things about that game was that Val Cumberbatch played on the wing for Barrow.
Cumberbatch was the son of Theodore Theophilus Cumberbatch, a ship’s steward, originally from Barbados, and Mary Ellen Kewin, who was originally from Ramsey on the Isle of Man.
Val Cumberbatch was the brother of James Cumberbatch, who also played during the 1930s, although in his case that was for Broughton Rangers.
But the interesting thing is that both players played for England – Jimmy making his debut in 1937, and Val in 1938.
In doing so, they became the first black players to represent England in Rugby League.
And yet very little is know about them, at least by me.
Super League recently announced that it would be doing some special projects during Black History Month and some research into the Cumberbatches would be an obvious project in that context. I would love to know more about them, and whether they have any descendants alive today.
A lady called Iris Bullock was known to all and sundry at Wakefield Trinity as “Mrs. B”, and sadly I’m told that she died at the age of 90 on 30 September.
Iris worked for many years at the club doing all the things that are often taken for granted, behind the scenes jobs, so often unrecognised and unnoticed.
She cleaned the loos, made the tea, fed the players and could genuinely be classed as a club legend. She used to live more or less next door to the ground.
Everyone associated with the club was saddened by her passing and I would like to pass on my condolences to her family. Every club has someone like Mrs B, dedicated supporters who give their help without expectation of reward. People who will do anything for their club. It would be great if that fact was more recognised.
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