Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Culture shock

From Pelion to Warrington is a journey that takes you from the idiosyncrasies of a Greek village to Rugby League territory, itself hardly an idiosyncrasy-free-zone. Waking up after the journey back, it was off on Sunday to the Co-operative Championship finals day for the lower divisions of the Rugby League, trying to switch my mind back to a different version of normality.

There were a few questions buzzing around. Would Oldham lose their fourth successive final and miss out on promotion yet again? They did, despite being supported by a group of African drummers and featuring the extravagantly named Wayne Kerr. Would the main match see evidence of the revival of two of our traditional heartlands clubs, Featherstone Rovers and Halifax, and show that there was life outside Super League, despite the abolition of automatic promotion and relegation? Here the news was mixed. The match was by no means a sell-out as it has been in the past, but there was a reasonable gathering of supporters from two clubs that had been through difficult times.

Then the drama began - a superb hundred metre try for underdogs Halifax from Warrincy, followed by a recovery from the excellent young Featherstone side and suddenly there was an announcement, the game was halted and the crowd behind one set of posts told to evacuate on to the pitch as a fire had broken out in a cupboard under the stand.

Friday saw the last match at St Helen's Knowsley Road ground, their home since 1890. On Sunday we saw why the old grounds had to go. A fire in many of our old stadia, including Swinton's much lamented and never replaced Station Road, could have been a catastrophe, another Bradford. Here everything was managed perfectly, there was no risk of it spreading and supporters were moved away from the area safely onto the pitch and then into another stand.

After a forty minute delay the drama continued. League leaders Featherstone built a comfortable 22-4 lead with 25 minutes to go and were cruising to victory. Then came the fightback, Halifax equalising at the death to make it 22-22. Now it was golden point extra time and Halifax snatched victory with a drop goal to win 23-22 and take the title.

It was a breathtaking, strange and very long day, but all was overshadowed by the tragic news of the death of Terry Newton. He was a fine player, though one capable of some pretty bad foul play, who had wrecked his career at the end by testing positive for a banned drug. A tragedy, but not one that should have cost him his life at the age of only 31. A very strange weekend for Rugby League.

With the Grand Final, a Wigan Saints derby, coming up on Saturday in front of around 70,000 fans at Old Trafford, it's a good time to reflect on the qualities and flaws of a sport that has reinvented itself, embracing a summer season, razzmatazz and a clutch of new stadia without ever losing its roots and its unique, down-to-earth qualities. It's a great game. Roll on Saturday.

No comments: