So, Challenge Cup semi-final weekend; a good one, too... Bradford got the worst of it, of course. Despite regularly being one of the best clubs in the country since 1996, they always struggle to make it stick. That was precisely their problem today - despite making chances, they never quite had the sort of quick-smart sharpness Saints always do. So, 35-14 and lucky it wasn't worse.
It was closer than that sounds, close enough that Sean Long (who had a storming game) chose to kick an extraordinary long-range drop goal on the h of half time. I don't know if anyone measured, but it can't have been less than 50 yards. The sort of thing Joe Lydon used to do in the 1980s, even then it was a little old-fashioned. The last player to really make a point of this sort of thing was probably Alex Murphy, and oddly, Long looks more and more like a 1970s throwback all the time, pale and shaggy.
Bradford were transitional; they have been for years. Their successes in the Brian Smith/Matthew Elliott period were based on very much the same style they always had. Dave Hadfield said that "even when they were winning, Bradford seemed grim", speaking of the 1980s side; but the late 90s Bradford weren't that different. Brute strength and discipline, and Robbie Paul for a change. Brian Noble, and since he left, Steve MacNamara, have tried to open out the rugby, but today, the result was an ugly hybrid.
Of course, it was tough. But St Helens were able to pick off their opportunities, with their ex-Bradford man Leon Pryce kicking well to the wings. At Bradford he was an out-and-out winger, but since then has moved infield as a stand-off; he may yet be the Great Britain No.6 Great Britain have been looking for since Garry Schofield. (He also got the chance to score a spectacular winger's try today.) Another of those Great Britain No.6s was playing, Iestyn Harris, now back from union with Bradford and having bulked-up dramatically.
Tomorrow, Wigan are playing Catalans, the first French team to get to a semi-final. It could well be difficult; they are next door in the league table, and the French side includes gnarly old schemers like Stacey Jones and Jason Croker. (I recall a photo of him with Canberra in 1994, gripping a goal post, parallel to the ground.) It will be a pity, though, that no-one can really enjoy it.
Because, as usual, league's poisonous backroom politics are pussing out in the open. And - inevitably - Wigan chairman Maurice Lindsay is at the bottom of it. (Before anyone asks, yes, I'm biased.) Last year, when it looked like Wigan might actually be relegated, Lindsay rushed out to panic-spend, buying among others the GB prop Stuart Fielden from Bradford. Unfortunately, he couldn't actually do this, as Wigan had already used their salary cap for the year.
He came up with a cunning plan; nine senior players would accept a "deferral" of part of their wages until next year. The Rugby League accepted his "verbal assurance" that this would be so. That anyone accepted Maurice's word for anything is surprising enough. But there is worse. Obviously, as Wigan hasn't substantially cut wages or players since then, the payment of the deferred wages must arithmetically mean that they've broken the cap again this year...now, they got away with a four-point deduction this time, out of a possible eight, so surely this re-offending will mean trouble?
Nuh. This year's sins will not be judged until 2008, and Maurice has already got the other top clubs to agree that they will end relegation for the 2009 season...if there is one good reason to keep promotion and relegation, it's that it obviates all this sick politicking. And without it, we probably wouldn't be having a season as competitive and interesting as we are. No Hull-Hull KR derbies. No Wakefield Trinity in the top three.
No Wigan in trouble, which is of course the point. This is a recipe for decay; down the leagues, with large helpings of futility for the small clubs, and in a top league that chose to be a self-appointed elite.