Almanac Rugby League – The Challenge Cup: a game I cannot see

The Challenge Cup 2011 (the game I cannot see)

This Saturday the Challenge Cup will be played at Wembley Stadium London. The Challenge
Cup is a competition based on soccer’s FA Cup, a knockout competition culminating in the last two teams
playing the Final at London’s famous Wembely Stadium.
Each year 90,000 fans make their way down to London from somewhere in the ‘rugby league belt’ of
Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria. The Final used to be played in May but since the advent of summer
rugby league it now takes place in August. In the early 1960s Australian rugby league fans were able to see live telecasts
from the BBC of Test matches from England featuring the Kangaross and Great Britain as well as the Challenge Cup.
This weekend there appears to be no coverage in Australia.

I was fortunate enough to experience this event when I lived in Wigan in 1986/87. All season I had followed Wigan and
I thought they were destined to win everything. They were leading in the Championship and were going well in the Challenge Cup
until a cold night in Oldham’s home ground of Watersheddings the unthinkable happened. I attended with a Wigan mate and Wigan
were defeated by 2 points from a last minute try. The Wigan fans were stunned and all my Wigan mates decided that was the last Challenge Cup game
they would attend that season, such is the tribal nature of English rugby league. I was determined to see more and went to
the semi-final, minus my Wigan mates. This match was held at Central Park Wigan (a neutral ground) and was between St Helens and
Leigh. The town was full of Saints and Leigh fans, singing and chanting “Wembley, Wembley, we’re all going to Wembley”. Saints won the match
and were on their way to Wembley to play Halifax.

I was very excited the week leading up to the trip to Wembley but could not get any of my Wigan mates to attend. One of my rugby league students
was pleased to atend. He played for Blacbrook which is a St Helens club, hence I had a Sainrts connection. However there were only a few Wigan coaches
(buses) going down so we went down in a Saints coach. The Wigan fans who decided to attend bought Halifx gear and became Halifax fans for the day,
an interesting statement about the intense rivalry between Wigan and Saints and also an example of the northern working class humour.
When we converged on London there seemed to be hundreds of coaches all heading for Wembley. We drew alongside a coach full of French fans and I showed
them my Australian scarf and immediately received a loud cheer and a thumbs up. Everyone was excited.

We arrived at Wembley before the gates opened and there were thousand of fans milling around. When we eventually got in I walked around the stadium
before going to the seats to absorb the atmosphere. The lead up to the game is just as exciting as the game. Firsly the players walk out on the filed about an hour
before the game. They are dressed in their suits with their club ties on and the cheering made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When they have left the field
the community singing starts. Everyone takes part. Traditional Lancashire, Yorkshire songs, Lassie from Lancashire, Ilkley Moor by t’at are sung and then Jerusalem
and Land of Hope and Glory. There is silence and the finale is Abide with Me (I was told the anthem of the Rugby League, but I note it is also sung at theFA Cup),
once agian the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The players then enter the arena walking out slowly, accompanied by a huge roarof the crowd, the national
anthemn and then the game begins. After all that I was ready to go home before the game had started. My memories of the game were that it was a close encounter
with Saints getting over the line but lost the ball in a tackle. Coach Alex Murphy was furious as the Chris Anderson led side won the game. Halifax won 19-18 in front
of over 91,000 fans

After the game, it was back on the coaches for the trip back to the North. There was a slight gloom on the bus but I was in good spirits and got off looking to have a beer to celebrate
Wembley. I went to my local and met a big St Helens supporter (Big Vic) who was to become a life long friend.

This Saturday my memories will flood back to the day I went to Wembley, but I ask the question, with all the technology around, iPads, IPhones, Fox why is it that in 1963 I could watch Wembley at home
in Brisbane but in 2011 I can’t see it in Free to Air or Pay TV??

Greg Mallory





  1. Greg Mallory says

    Go the Pie-eaters! (Wigan)

    PS: Manly were pretty hot last night in the fight & in the football. I don’t think the Macintyre system will allow a Manly v Brisbane Grans Final if Melbourne, Manly & Brisbane win in the first week?

  2. Greg, great capture of life in the rugby league heartland of England.

    One of my ultimate sports fantasies is to attend a rugby league test in the north of England on a cold November evening, surrounded by lots of Lancastrians, Cumbrians and Yorkshiremen. They’d give me lots of good-natured curry I’m sure, but the shared enjoyment of a great Game would overwhelm any real difference. Any stories of such games?

    And yes, Manly were good – in all manner of ways – on Friday.

  3. Greg Mallory says

    yes Adam, in 1986 I saw the 3 Tests at Old Tafford, Elland Road & Wigan. In 2005 I saw NZ v England & Australia losing to NZ 20-0 at Elland . However the best atmosphere was at the when the Kangaroos played the club sides in 1986. I saw Australai v Wigan, v St helens, v Hull KR. I’ll organise myself to write something along the lines of ‘Bring Back Full Kangaroo Tours’

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