Graham in grip of a nightmare

Simon Kelner reflects on a sad experience for the Bradford full- back

For years to come, the Bradford Bulls full-back Nathan Graham will lie in bed, close his eyes and see a rugby ball spiralling out of a blue sky towards him. Then the nightmares will begin. Graham's afternoon under a fusillade of high kicks from the St Helens scrum-half, Bobbie Goulding, is one he is not likely to forget in a hurry. Three times in a seven-minute spell during a remarkable second-half recovery by St Helens, Goulding put the ball up towards Graham. A try resulted on each occasion and St Helens, 26-12 behind early in the second half, had done a better job at turning back the tide than King Canute.

It was an afternoon that saw rugby league in its best light before 76,000 at Wembley and a national TV audience. The match twisted this way and that before it was settled by the boot of a supreme performer who must have run his opposite number, Robbie Paul, very close in the voting for the man of the match award. Paul was a worthy recipient, but it was Goulding who made the decisive contribution.

There could be no ambivalence about the quality of fare on offer yesterday, even though it was difficult to work out what the match represented in rugby league's turbulent recent history. Was it the sun setting on an era, or dawn breaking over a new age? Rugby league supporters could be excused for feeling schizophrenic about yesterday's Challenge Cup final. For the last time, the sport's traditional day in the sun was the climax of a winter campaign and, as wisps of cotton wool clouds scudded across the sky, rugby league's re-invention as a summer sport seemed almost complete.

For the traditionalist, there was some comfort at Wembley yesterday. The build-up to the match was understated and dignified. There were no fireworks, no Sky dancing girls or Tina Turner impersonators, just moving renditions of "Jerusalem" and "Abide With Me".

But this is the brave new world of the Super League, and that means non- stop action and points galore. Gone are the wars of attrition; the last time Bradford - then known as Northern - lifted the Challenge Cup they did so by a margin of 12-0. There was no chance of that happening yesterday. From the third minute, when Goulding put Steve Prescott over for the first of his two tries, it was certain that we were in for a points-fest. In a remarkably well-tempered game - just one penalty was awarded for foul play - it appeared that the only thing that would blow a fuse would be the electronic scoreboard. The pace of the game and the searing heat at pitch level made inevitable the gaps that appeared in a second half that saw 46 points scored.

There is plenty in this new age for league followers to get used to, but as St Helens and Bradford showed yesterday, it's not all bull.

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