Friday, 10 January 2020

Sunday's Coming: The Law Cup

While the Rugby League world rubs itself daft over Toronto's escalation to Super League, new opportunities in New York and has gone OTT over Ottawa, a rare thread of the game's Mitochondrial DNA will be hauled out into the floodlights this weekend as Hornets host Oldham in the Law Cup.

Rugby League was built on rivalries like this. Salford v Swinton, FC v Rovers, Featherstone v Castleford, Wigan v Saints - games that look ostensibly like any other, but which contain within their coding that twist of local pride that gives them more spice, more emotion - more importance.

And The Hornets/OIdham rivalry goes back almost as far as the history of rugby itself. Into Rugby League prehistory.

Founded in 1871, Rochdale Hornets was one of the earliest formally constituted clubs in the game - but Hornets had to wait a further five years before Oldham gave them a proper local rivalry.

Both clubs were among the 22 rebels to form the Northern Union in 1895, with the inaugural season for both seeing contrasting fortunes: Oldham finished a 42 game season in 4th place. Hornets ran stone-cold last. Ever the underdog...

Not content with league and cup derbies, the most hotly contested - and most resilient - pre-season derby in Rugby League was created in 1921: The AJ Law Cup.

First played to raise money for the Rochdale and Oldham Infirmaries, it was known as the ‘Infirmaries Cup’.  As recorded in Hornets' Annual Report and Accounts from that year, a local MP – Mr A.J.Law – provided “a handsome Silver Cup for the Competition” and the winners received gold medals “the gift of Rochdale and Oldham gentlemen”.

At the first game everybody concerned, including the players of both Clubs, gave their services for free, contributing to a donation of £348 3s 7 ½d to each of the two hospitals. The first game ended in a gripping nil-nil draw.

With the creation of the NHS, proceeds from the match in the 1948/9 season were distributed to local charities and the cup was referred as the ‘Charity Cup’. During the 1949/50 season it was decided that the majority of the proceeds would be used “for the fostering of junior Rugby League games” and the trophy was renamed after its founder.

Thus far, there have been 68 fixtures - including one replay after the nil-nil draw (Oldham won the replay 12-8 in front of 7,000 people). Oldham have won the cup 46 times to Hornets' 20. The cup was jointly held by both clubs in 1954 and 1976 following draws.

Oldham's longest winning run is seven consecutive wins between August 1978 and August 1998. Hornets longest winning run is four games between January 2005 and January 2010. The highest attendance at a Law Cup game was 14,000 in 1926 (Oldham won 34-nil). The highest attendance in the 21st century was at Spotland in 2002: 2,141 fans watched Oldham edge it 22-28. Oldham are current holders having won 28 – 8 at the Vestacare in January last year.

As always, there's been plenty of player traffic both ways up the A627M and this year's Oldham squad features ex-Hornets Dec Kay, James Worthington, Danny Bridge, Jode Sheriffe and Dan Abram.

The Roughyeds opened their season last week, edging a Barrow side padded with seven amateur triallists 18-22. Described in the press as 'a victory for experience', Oldham were 16-nil up in the first quarter then basically racked the cue, their only other try from Bridge on 50 minutes.

At this end of Oldham Road, Matt Calland saw his 25-man squad put in a promising performance against Widnes. While it's hard to pick the bones out of a game with so many changes, there were clear indications of potential: Sam Freeman looks comfortable at fullback and a pack led by Sean Penkywicz showed some promising go-forward. And with Dale Bloomfield returning to the fold to join Shaun Ainscough, Hornets have some genuine strike options up the edges.

As always, despite its billing as a pre-season friendly, the Law Cup means much, much more. Yes, local bragging rights and the weight of real Rugby League history come as standard with this venerable fixture. And while it may not have the economic clout of Toronto or the glamour of New York, it does come with the one thing they'll never have: genuine meaning.

See you there