Thursday, September 01, 2005

Bloggin' Rugby League: Challenge Cup Final, and Leeds

Well, I promised to insult Leeds RLFC as much as I dissed Hull, so here goes. This weekend saw a Challenge Cup final that lived up to the billing I gave it. I said the Leeds/Hull grudge intensity would rock the Pennines even though it was played in Cardiff, and - yes. The match was frankly brutal, some of the rugby spectacular, and the result couldn't have been more dramatic. Leeds 24, Hull 25, with a last-minute try for Hull and an even more last-minute drop-goal attempt to save the game from Leeds. And Marcus Bai practically handed a Hull player the ball in his own in-goal area for the weirdest try I've ever seen. And there was a penalty try. And it was Hull's first trophy since 1991.

But first, the whipping. The other half of the Leeds/Hull grudge is Leeds. Leeds are the Tottenham of rugby league - rich, unfailingly stylish, cursed by an ineradicable streak of flakiness. And Jewish. They own Yorkshire's cricket ground, also one of the traditional test grounds, which has always been a cash cow. Also, they play in Leagueville itself, the only British city that can support three professional teams and probably a hundred or two amateur outfits ranging from champs to chumps, not to mention the game's governing body. That means big crowds, and regular crowds. It also means a big recruiting base of players. You would think that with a player farm in the back garden, average crowds over 20,000, a golden tap on cricket, and a queue of fans turned property sharks willing to pour in more cash, Leeds would win everything in sight.

It's not quite that easy, though, and being a Leeds fan has often been a disappointing business. Sure, there has always been rugby worth watching. There have always been stars. There have not, however, been trophies. For years Leeds were the team who didn't quite cut it against the key rivals, Wigan and Bradford. The suspicion was always there, too, that the problem was a lack of resolve. Too much money, they said, too flashy, too much time in the bright lights, thi knaws. I remember what looked like a fine Leeds side playing Wigan in the 1996 Premiership final. Leeds roared out of the blocks like a herd of testosterone, going 10-0 up in less than even time as the crowds rocked Old Trafford. YORK-SHIRE, YORK-SHIRE. Then, 20 minutes in, with the first surge of aggression falling off and "only" 10 points of damage done, Wigan seemed to turn it on. And Leeds melted like snow in the sun. 69-12, and lucky to escape a score beyond their worst-ever defeat, 70-4 by Wigan in 1992. A brand-new centre called Kris Radlinski scored three tries and stamped the start of an impressive career all over Leeds.

Before that, I remember Doug Laughton's Leeds side in the 1994 Challenge Cup. Laughton's teams, wherever they were, were always a lot like that, and his Leeds side was practically a caricature of Leeds's problems. There were players like Garry Schofield, the most-capped British Lion, Ellery Hanley, who some would say was the best British player full stop, Kevin Iro, Harvey Howard (later known as "Animal" in Australia), James Lowes, Gary Mercer, Alan Tait - but it didn't add up to a team. They played cat-and-mouse with St Helens in the semis, then encountered Wigan in the final and were bruised out of it. In the league, with consistent performance needed, they were going nowhere fast.

One thing anyone from Leeds will say about them is how good their "youth policy" is. Well, that's partly a function of being based in the middle of 500,000 rugby nutters. And it wasn't always so. Leeds lads would either start off at Hunslet and end up somewhere else - like Hanley, Andy Platt and Jason Robinson - or (in recent times) make a spectacular entry to the Leeds first team, and then fail. Graham Holroyd was tipped as a Great Britain no.6 but never quite achieved potential and ended up, I think, with Rochdale Hornets. Ryan Sheridan was good, got badly hurt, recovered, challenged for the GB no.7 shirt, faded, and is now playing lower division rugby. Paul Cook kicked goals for fun, fell out with Dean Bell, was dumped and went to Bradford where he kicked goals for fun against Leeds. Leroy Rivett achieved the ultimate in this by going from the youth team in 1997 to the 1999 Lance Todd Trophy, the man-of-the-match award in the Cup Final, where he scored four tries against London, to being on loan to Keighley within three years. Something didn't quite work.

Traditionally Leeds dealt with this by signing everyone else's young players. This lay at the heart of the feud with Hull. Garry Schofield started off at Hull and went to Leeds, earning the lifetime hatred and loathing of the Threepenny Stand. He went on to glory with Leeds, or more accurately with Great Britain, accumulating 46 international caps, a record he shares only with Jim Sullivan. However, being a Leeds player has its downside - he is also the only man in the game to have four, yes, four Challenge Cup loser's medals. I ask you.

Things change, though. Graham Murray's late-90s Leeds were nearly the breakthrough, and certainly one of the most thrilling teams to watch ever, with Iestyn Harris, Rivett when he was good, ex-Keighley enforcer Darren Fleary, Lee Jackson, and a produt of their less well-known Help the Aged policy, Paul Sterling, a spectacular broken-field running winger who turned professional at the age of 34. Finally, Daryl Powell, Tony Smith, and another generation of good young 'uns made Leeds a champion side in the last couple of years.

But, when the critical moment struck this time, that old flaky streak turned up. Marcus Bai's effort to offload behind his own goal line had the real quixotic quality of a true Loiner fuckup. Hull came prepared out of their own natural tradition for a savage physical battle, but for some reason Leeds chose to dispense with their own killer, Barrie McDermott, the one-eyed enforcer who became the first man in Britain to be subdued by police using personal CS gas when he became over lively outside a nightclub in Oldham. Barrie once said that "All I know about the game is that if they show you a red card, you're off for good, if they show you a yellow card you're off for 10 minutes, and if they show the other bloke a green card with a white cross [shown to indicate that they must leave the pitch for treatment], you're doing your job properly!", but Leeds didn't even have him on the bench - an incredible blunder dealing with a team as nails as Hull. He could have been out there cracking heads and taking names, but instead he was in the stand watching Hull beating Leeds bloody.

The finish was telling, too. Leeds, on the last set of six of the Cup and one point down, began setting up for a drop goal attempt. But, on tackle three, rather than the human battering ram they needed to gain ground and time, the ball went to stand-off Danny McGuire, who was predictably walloped. Kevin Sinfield had to take the kick further out, off-centre and under pressure - unsurprisingly, it didn't happen. Leeds aren't the kind of club that has its last-minute drop goal routine etched on the collective mind.

With remarkable speed after the win, Hull's essentially chavvish side broke through. There was no stadium violence this time, but the sight of Hull's skipper mounting the podium to receive the winner's medal wearing a black-and-white half and half wig taken from a spectator, another spectator's Hull scarf, and a Union Flag wrapped around himself in a sort of Denise Lewis pose but not as pretty makes the brain reel. Dignity? Class? Wrong club, my friend.


Anonymous said...

Graham holroyd actually ended up at Doncaster Lakers as player and asst coach.

Anonymous said...

Graham Holroyd went on to smash Halifax's points record for a season in 2008 which had been held for over fifty years where is Paul Cook again??????

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