Monday, 16 April 2012

Hornets Lose In The Battle for Challenge Cup's Soul

Leigh 68  Hornets 18

With all the atmosphere of an asteroid and the aesthetic qualities of an Eastern European substation, the ridiculously-named Leigh Sports Village provided a suitably soulless environment for this hard-to-watch encounter, in a competition that has clearly passed its sell-by date.

The 'magic' of the cup was hard to find here as an understrength Hornets shorn of Gorton, Crook, Roper, Cookson, Newton and Donohue battled in vain against a Leigh side that were bigger, stronger, faster and sharper in every department - except right centre where Stuart Littler continues to tout his own unique style of comedy football.

Indeed, having conceded three early tries from Ridyard, Briscoe and Brierley, it was through Littler's centre channel that Hornets worked their spectacular opening try. Adam Bowman gathered a loose ball one handed and in the same movement slipped a neat reverse pass to Phil Wood; the ball was worked smartly across the line where Anthony Stewart and Wayne English made space for Stephen Bannister to outpace the cover to score.

Almost immediately, Hornets produced a copy-cat move, this time Stewart feeding English into space. Rather than back himself for the line, Wayne's delicate chip over the defence fell fortuitously into the arms of a grateful full-back and Leigh marched back upfield where slick handling gave Littler a walk-in. Most disappointing.

Leigh continued to press, bombing two or three good opportunities. And Hornets' blushes were saved when Wayne English mopped up after some very ordinary defence, pulling off the tackle of the game when Ridyard and the ball were summarily dispatched into touch inches from the corner flag.

Against the run of play, Hornets took the ball upfield where Steve McDermott slotted Stephen Lucas over by the posts on the end of a pinpoint flat-pass. Littler was put on report for dissent.

Half time 26-12 and a pretty fair reflection of the game.

The second half started controversially. Jonny Leather executed a perfectly timed one-on-one tackle on Leigh's McNally, but referee Leatherbarrow was the only person in the stadium to interpret it as a spear tackle (the fact that McNally was never past the vertical didn't seem to matter too much). Leigh hoofed the penalty downfield where Hopkins rushed in to score through a retreating defence. 

With Chris Baines carried limping from the field after an un-punished 'spear-like' tackle (identical to Leather's effort, with added afters), Hornets struggled to get back  into shape. Two more back-to-back tries from Brierley and Littler (who showboated under the posts, gesticulating to the scattering of Leigh fans) stretched the Centurions' lead - but Hornets didn't buckle.

Having worked the ball to within 20 metres of the Leigh posts, debutant Will Chadwick's dainty grubber came back of the post for Paul O'Connor to gather and score. Chris Hough added the extras.

The last quarter was a damage-limitation exercise, a tiring Hornets struggling to make ground; Leigh working their way through a flagging defence at regular intervals with further tries from Hopkins, Brierley and Gardner.

At the final hooter, the Leigh fans celebrated wildly; the noisy Hornets contingent applauding their battle-worn team from the field.

But, whilst we can talk about bravery and determination and 'gutsy' performances, this was a mismatch that was never likely to yield an upset - and this is the nature of the Challnge Cup these days: CC1 teams batter the amateurs, Championship teams batter CC1 teams and Super League teams batter Championship (unless, of course, you're Castleford). Every team in the competition waits in-line for its turn to get flogged, patronised and collect an ever-shrinking pay-day.

It's not too long since Hornets were kicking seven shades out of Leigh at Hilton park - but the creeping compartmentalisation of Rugby League has widened the gulf between each division and the Challenge Cup has become the lens through which this inequality has become magnified.

In a game that has been structured to benefit the strong and disenfranchise the rest, there's very little left of value in the Challenge Cup. When fans of clubs like ours are praying for a draw that will see their team flogged by 70 or 80 points, you have to question the validity and the sanity of it all.

And for a competition that was once the heart and soul of our game, that's a very sad state of affairs.