Rugby League: Saints go shining through the hype

Simon Kelner sees rugby league's traditions survive the razzmatazz
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The Independent Online
Another day, another landslide. The points came thick and fast on a muggy afternoon at Wembley yesterday and when the count was completed St Helens were far more comfortable winners than the 10-points margin suggested.

Built on another consummate performance from their captain and scrum- half, Bobbie Goulding, and secured by crucial tries either side of half- time, St Helens took the trophy for the second season in succession with a little to spare.

Goulding's half-back partner, Tommy Martyn, won the man-of-the-match award for his two tries but it was a miraculous ankle tap on the Bradford centre Danny Peacock, who seemed certain to score with Saints only 16- 10 ahead just after the interval, that was possibly a more important intervention. Two minutes later, Bradford's inspirational scrum-half, Robbie Paul, left the field injured and, in the period he was off, Saints scored two more tries.

It must have been a dispiriting sight for the Bradford players to see the stewards take up their positions on the perimeter with the scoreboard reading 28-10 for Saints. That it didn't turn really ugly for the Bulls owed more to Saints relaxing and a dodgy refereeing decision that allowed a try for Glen Tomlinson. In truth, the game never reached the heights of last year's encounter but there was much to admire, particularly in an evenly contested first half.

For all that, it was once again a day to savour - a little wallowing in history, a touch of the hard sell of rugby league's brave new age and a game that showed up some of the supreme talents currently at work. All that, and a bomb scare.

Try as hard as it might, rugby league cannot quite give its past the slip. For all the we-will-we-will-rock-you razzmatazz, despite the aerodynamic skin-tight strips, notwithstanding the relentless hype of the Super League, one of the most traditional of sports had to honour its traditions on the day of the 100th Cup final. So, as well as a half-time parade of new- fangled club mascots - a wolf from Warrington, a lion from Swinton and a bull from Bradford - we were treated to a parade of heroes from a bygone age who, bizarrely, were driven round the stadium in vintage cars while Paul Young and Edwin Starr were strutting their stuff. You just don't know where you are with rugby league these days.

But for all the celebration of the Challenge Cup as the central point in the rugby league calendar there is no escaping the fact that yesterday's game represented a further erosion of one of the sport's foundation stones. This was the first time that the Challenge Cup competition has existed as largely a pre-season tournament. With the switch to a summer season the early rounds were completed with the players still in their winter coats and instead of the campaign building to a peak on a May day at Wembley, we are not yet half way through the season. As Sky TV takes more of a grip of the direction of the game - the Challenge Cup is still the property of the BBC - the premier knock-out competition will surely be forced further into the background.

Rupert Murdoch's money may be all that matters for rugby league at the moment, but some of the heirlooms are not yet ready to be pawned off.

THE paperback edition of Simon Kelner's book "To Jerusalem And Back" - the story of the making of the Super League - is available in bookshops this week (Pan, pounds 6.99).