Monday, August 27, 2007

Walcome home...

... welcome, come on in and close the door.

Don't worry, this hasn't just turned into either a nostalgia blog or even a Peters and Lee fansite (ask your grandad).

This weekend the rugby league Challenge Cup final returned to its traditional home at Wembley Stadium, following some time on the road while the new national stadium was being constructed. With all due respect to Twickenham, Murrayfield and the Millenium Stadium who each in their own way were excellent hosts in the meantime, there's something about Wembley that just makes it "right" that the final should be back there.

In days of yore, the final used to be seen as a "grand day out" for northern fans to descend on the capital and play the tourist. As transport links have improved, that's obviously not so much of a big deal any more - you can be in London within 3 hours or so from the M62 corridor. The stadium has also been changed beyond all recognition, its historic twin towers replaced by an imposing arch. But even after all that, it's still Wembley, it's still special and it still has a mystique attached to it.

It's also one of the few showpiece occasions rugby league in this country has where it can display what it has to offer to a broad national media audience. The club game doesn't attract the column inches or free-to-air television time on a week to week basis so it needs occasions like the Challenge Cup final to put itself out there on view to a swathe of potential new fans.

That being the case - and I don't want to be a grinch here - it was a bit of a shame that the spectacle on the field didn't match the build up to it. Having Catalan Dragons in the final was an absolute boon for the RFL publicity machine. New team, new faces and the opportunity to show the world that rugby league is far removed from being cloth cap and whippets and is a growing, cosmopolitan sport. Sadly whether nerves of the occasion got to both teams or not we'll never know, but the first half was littered with errors and the game was effectively over as a contest with half an hour to go.

Still, with over 84,000 tickets sold, acres of positive press in the lead-up that would have cost a fortune to buy and the boost to the game in France that this final will have given all in all it still was a "grand day out" for rugby league.

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