Wembley Stadium
2011 Challenge Cup Final

Ground No. 20
Visited - Saturday 27th August 2011
Result - Leeds Rhinos 18-28 Wigan Warriors
Competition - Carnegie Challenge Cup Final
Attendance - 78,482

It’s ironic to see that since Rugby Union turned professional, the authorities have almost systematically emulated nearly everything that Rugby League had the foresight to set out and do over a century ago, the latest idea amongst their one-upmanship to be holding games at Wembley Stadium, the traditional home of the Challenge Cup Final.

When the two codes split in 1895, one of the first decisions to be made by the Northern Union was to instigate the Challenge Cup as a rival to football’s FA Cup, offering clubs the chance at a nationalised competition to progress the game, the RFU at the time having restricted all competitions to local events only in the name of amateurism/short-sightedness. It was popular from the off, the first final being held in 1897 at Headingley, Batley the winners against St Helens in front of a crowd of 13,492. Attendances continued to grow, doubling in the second year’s final alone, and by the end of the 1920’s, with there being few RL grounds big enough to cope with demand, together along with the reputed excitement of Huddersfield Town fans in getting to have a day out in London when they reached the 1928 FA Cup Final, then the RFL board voted to move the venue of the final to Wembley to showcase the biggest game of the season at the best ground in the country. It was a huge success, 41,500 turning out to see Wigan beat Dewsbury 13-2 giving the game a national focal point that it had lacked in the face of the RFU’s ongoing campaign against the sport, and except for 1932, the war years and during Wembley’s rebuilding phase the final has stayed there ever since, giving RL some of its highest attendances to date (yet ironically not the highest, the replay of the 1954 final attracting the record with 102,564 cramming into Odsal to see Warrington beat Halifax).

So, to see union clubs describing their moves of playing at Wembley as innovative is laughable, yet frustratingly they still seem to command the media attention whilst RL remains the poorer cousin, all but ignored, that is until the recent resurgence of Wigan. Most RL fans will probably hate admitting it, but the truth is that Wigan command media attention in the way that the rest of the game put together can struggle to, and most of this is probably down to the club dominating the one London based game of the season for so many years during the late 80s/early 90s. The 29 finals that the club have appeared in is a record by some distance, as is the 18 wins, eight of which were recorded in a row between 1988 and 1995. Winning the Super League Grand Final in 2010 many fans were asking the question of whether they’d swap it for a Challenge Cup win, the famous trophy having eluded the club for nearly a decade since last winning it in 2002, but showing some great late season form in 2011, then they’d get the opportunity to compare after reaching the final having defeated St Helens in the semi’s. Their opponents, Leeds, had lost to Warrington the year before, and suffering a poor (by their standards) campaign in the league, were somewhat fortunate to scrape through their own semi against Castleford, thanks in part to the boot of Kevin Sinfield (how many times has that been said!) who had not only converted a late try to make it 8-8, but scored a sudden death penalty in extra-time to send his side through when in truth Cas fans had probably watched the better side lose.

I’d first been to a Challenge Cup Final in 2006, ironically given the opening to this, at the home of the RFU, Twickenham, to see St Helens beat Huddersfield, but going back to one supporting a side is different and of course being at Wembley, an experience in itself.

They say a clubs name is written on the cup long before the final, and looking back over this seasons results, perhaps it is. Destroying Barrow 52-0 in the fourth round, a close fought win over Bradford in the next round was that little bit of luck needed, whilst what should have been difficult games against Warrington in the quarters and Saints in the semi turned into relatively easy wins, only a late, but fruitless St Helens fightback proving a slight worry along the way. Leeds on the other hand had conceded 20 or more points in every game until reaching the semi-final against Cas, and even then were fortunate not to be knocked out, with Rangi Chase missing an easy last minute drop goal in front of the posts that would have sent them to Wembley, still you can never write a side of their quality off, and leaving early for London, whilst clear favourites, the discussion on the journey down was far from confident, with a tight game expected.

I’ve been to Wembley several times since it’s been rebuilt, so knew what to expect from the ground, but even so, after coming out of Wembley Park tube station, it’s always impressive looking down the steps and seeing Wembley Way stretching out in front of you with the ground itself at the bottom. We spent some time before the game walking around, sucking up the atmosphere before heading to the Green Man a 10 minute walk away, which promised to have the Villa-Wolves game on, which conveniently was the early kick-off and televised! Despite the claims of Sky on its website, it didn’t have it on, so downing a pint we headed on to the next pub, The Parish, where before buying a pint this time we were advised yes, they have Sky Sports. Flicking through the channels a few minutes later, they didn’t have Sky Sports 2! The game near kicking off at this point, another quick downing of the pint, and a dash over the road to the Mesopotamia, where thankfully they had it on, even if at £4 a pint it was tempting not to bother! With that game over though, then it was time to head on over back to the ground for the main event of the day, and walking up Wembley Way for a second time, the atmosphere was really starting to build up.

When I’d booked the tickets online in the run-up to the game, the Wigan end had seemed largely sold out except in the more expensive areas, so it was a bit disappointing after going in to see how empty the ground was. Even with the game having kicked off and the stragglers having arrived then it still didn’t look anywhere near the 78,482 that was later announced. We were in the upper tier, a bit high up for my liking, but with a still reasonable view of the game, and the scoring got going early on thanks to Josh Charnley with a mazy run down the right before crashing over, Pat Richards unable to add the extras. Jeff Lima made it 8-0 fifteen minutes later, Richards having an easier kick for the two this time and shortly afterwards in the 27th minute came the moment of the match. Leeds, kicking on the fifth saw Sam Tomkins collect the ball around the 10 metre line before crossing the field and offloading to brother Joel, who swerving challenges ran nearly the full length off the pitch before going over beneath the posts unchallenged for what will surely go down as one of the greatest tries in a Challenge Cup Final ever. 16-0 and going to form, but write off a team like Leeds? Never. In the 34th minute they got one back with some good passing movement down the left which fed Ryan Hall to go over right in the corner, Kevin Sinfield uncharacteristically missing the conversion when he hit the post, and if that was a sobering reminder to how dangerous a side they can be, then three minutes before the break the game turned right on its head when after a good surge by Jamie Jones-Buchanan, the Rhinos move upfield with Ben Jones-Bishop powering his way over in the opposite corner to Hall, Sinfield back to usual self to make it 16-10 at the break and game on.

Assuming the interval had come at the right time for Wigan would be one way of considering it, but far from giving the players time to regroup, it was Leeds who came out strongest in the second half, and helped by mistakes from Warriors, they scored the next try thanks to Carl Ablett who just about got over the line, the video ref having the last say to make it 16-14 in the 59th minute. Thankfully, Sinfield missed again, and the comeback was thwarted only four minutes later thanks to Jeff Lima who got his second of the game, sliding in after what looked a suspiciously forward pass from Lee Mossop. In a topsy turvy affair, it was Leeds who scored next, with nine minutes left making full use of the width of the pitch again when Ryan Hall made it 22-18, but with nerves slightly frayed then it was all over three minutes from time, Thomas Leuluai bursting through the Rhinos defence with a surge from the 10 metre line to slide over and win it, Pat Richards adding the two to put it beyond doubt and make Sean O’Loughlin the first Wigan captain to pick up the famous trophy at Wembley in sixteen years.

After staying behind to watch the trophy presented and players do the lap of honour, then it was time to head off home, more glad of the win than visiting the ground.

Whilst you can’t knock the history and significance of Wembley, one of the problems with the newly built stadium is how big it is. Not so much the capacity, just the height of the upper tier and the design with the middle tier separating fans. It’s been knocked endlessly since being built, but that isn’t enough reason not to go on about it even more! Whilst the view is fine enough from the upper tier, there is a feeling of being separated from the players and fans below. It’s the second time I’ve sat there, and it’s the same for football as well. The Conference play-off final I went to in 2008 had the right idea when they closed the upper tier and sold the middle tier to fans, making it seem a better atmosphere, and whilst games like this need the bigger capacity, it would be better to release the upper tier tickets only as and when the lower and middle sell out or reaches at least 80% capacity. As it was, the crowd did feel a bit sparse in the end, and it was notable how few shirts of other clubs there were compared to 2006, perhaps due to the recession and there not being so much money around any more, but despite that, a good day out all the same, hopefully to be repeated in 2012! 

Click pictures for full sizes
Extra-large Cup Final special version!

View from Wembley Park

Walking down Wembley Way

The Carnegie Challenge Cup

Wrong Sport...

Rear of the North Stand

Club Wembley Entrances

Rear of the North Stand

Rear of the East Stand and Arch

Rear of the South Stand

Rear of the West Stand

Cup Final Merchandise

Bit Busier now!

Nearly there!

Players Come Out

Ready for Kick Off

The West Stand

The North Stand

The East Stand

The South Stand


Players Celebrate

Lap of Honour

One last view...

Time to go home!

Wembley Stadium Panoramic 1

Wembley Stadium Panoramic 2

No comments:

Post a Comment