Talking RL: Wembley display was frustrating and encouraging

Wembley week was busier and better, admittedly. But derby week isn't bad, either.

Thursday, 31st August 2017, 1:32 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:35 pm
Sam Tomkins reflects on defeat

Especially for a game with so much at stake.

I resist using the term ‘must-win’ loosely, but whoever loses on Friday will probably need some freaky results to go in their favour if they are to still make it into the top-four (Saints have the advantage of a superior for-and-against which, if they keep up, would sneak them into fourth if they finish level on points with Wakefield and/or Wigan).

If there’s one upshot to the defeat at Wembley, it’s that the Warriors will be in better shape for this week.

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Thousands of fans enjoyed Wembley... but many more stayed away

I doubt they’d have been in training on Monday morning had they won the Cup!

At Wembley, Hull played well – their players admitted as much.

Wigan sold themselves short – their players admitted as much.

And still, it was close. Agonisingly close. Wigan could, perhaps should, have won it... and that was not only frustrating, but also encouraging.

Thousands of fans enjoyed Wembley... but many more stayed away

Because if they can find their form, if they can click into gear, if they can make sure they use their Wembley loss to motivate rather than shackle them, they are still capable of doing something this season.

But from here on in, there’s little wriggle-room for error.

Everyone has their own yardstick and so the reaction to the Wembley loss has, not surprisingly, been mixed.

Some have shrugged their shoulders in a ‘fair play, Wigan got to a final, it went to the wire and they didn’t quite do it’ sort of way.

Others have blamed the referees.

Others have been far more stinging, criticising everything from Shaun Wane’s tactics, to the goal-kicking, to specific players.

I’m firmly in the first category.

But, quickly, on those points: Hull weren’t exactly thrill-a-minute, but it worked for them, and fair play.

Goal-kicking is an issue, but if you make it the issue, it brushes over other shortfalls – the wrong decisions, the poor completion rate, the sub-standard tactical kicking, the lost battle down the middle.

As for the criticism of individuals, I get how emotions run high in sport.

And everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I get that, too.

But some of the comments went way over the top.

For example, they seemed to give no leeway for the fact Liam Marshall is in his debut season (he is the club’s top-tryscorer – despite missing a third of fixtures) and was the only player on the pitch who hadn’t played in a final before.

On top of that, he was called up 15 minutes before kick-off! I’ll repeat that, real slow: He. Was. Called. Up. Fif. Teen. Minutes. Before. Kick. Off.

Jeez... if anyone deserved a bit of slack, it was him!

I’m not sure what he could have done to beat Fetuli Talanoa to a high ball, other than hope for a rapid growth-spurt, and perhaps he was too casual in preventing a brilliant 40-20, but aside from that he made one error.

And still, according to Opta Stats, he finished with more metres with the ball – 191m – than anyone else on the pitch!

I was disappointed Wigan lost, but I thought it was a great game for a great occasion.

I struggled to call a winner before kick-off and, in the final minute, Wigan were inches away from drawing or winning, and they didn’t. Well done to Hull. The city that introduced me to ‘chip spice’ have a good team, a good club, and a likeable coach.

But after reading some of the social-media reactions on Sunday, and seeing how irate some were, I fired up my work email and was given a sobering ‘big picture’ moment. It was an email from Warrington Wolves, outlining details of their next game: a ‘middle-8s’ match at London Broncos.

Wigan have won a World Club Challenge, only just lost a Challenge Cup Final, and are still in the hunt for a top-four spot.

Things could be a lot worse.

I get how Wigan Council can’t please everyone all the time.

Damned if you do, and all that (though don’t get me started on the changes to the bins!).

But I found it strange they threw a big party on Sunday, which went ahead even though Wigan lost at Wembley, when there was nothing to mark their Grand Final or World Club Challenge triumphs.

Wigan’s loss was their first in a Challenge Cup Final since May 15, 2004.

I knew the date off the top of my head: my son was born that day.

But I’d forgotten – until looking it up this week – who played in the centres for Wigan that day; one was Kevin Brown, the other Sean O’Loughlin!

Funny how the crowd of 68,525 at Wembley prompted a debate about what can be done to revitalise the Challenge Cup Final.

Officially, it’s the lowest game since the match returned to the London venue. Around 8,000 down on last year.

Please. For the previous 10 years, RFL officials have had no control over the Club Wembley seats.

The tickets had already been sold – as corporate, long-term ‘season-tickets’ – and counted on the attendance. Even though, judging from the ring of empty seats in the past, many chose not to turn up!

I’m glad the appeal of the Challenge Cup Final is being debated.

I hope those who stayed-away are asked why they chose not to go – it’s just a shame the inflated-crowds have glossed over the issue for far too long.

On Saturday, I was surprised a the lack of ‘neutral’ shirts, which made me wonder whether the Magic Weekend has taken over as the annual carnival to head to for many supporters.

Should the Challenge Cup Final be moved from its August slot?

Or at least away from the Bank Holiday weekend?

Should there be more pre-match entertainment and activities?

It’s time we had a serious conversation about how we can make the Challenge Cup Final more attractive.

Last weekend, a story resurfaced about a New York-based outfit joining the English rugby league structure within the next few years.

The report, a rare rugby league story in the Daily Mail, says Toronto’s chief executive Eric Perez is fronting the consortium.

And given Toronto’s official Twitter account posted a link to the story, it’s a good bet there’s some truth in it!

It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

I must admit, while I welcomed Toronto’s admission into League One, I had my doubts. I thought it was a bit too left-field. That it would all end in tears.

But their crowd for their last home game was 7,522 – more than two NRL fixtures on the same weekend.

So far, so good.

Clubs are considering plans to bring evening kick-offs forward from 8pm to 7.45pm to help families.

It’d also help colleagues of mine on the press benches.

I often see colleagues file their copy to national newspapers with 10 minutes of a game still to go (they are allowed to change the score, and opening line, on the whistle) and I’ve seen them miss deadlines, because games have dragged on because of stoppages.

Wigan’s marketing manager Simon Collinson leaves the club this week to take a role with a sports video analysis company.

Many fans may not know him, but they’ve felt the benefits of his involvement off-the-field over the years.

He either failed with, or ignored, my request to get Aerosmith or Bon Jovi over for the pre-match entertainment before a Wigan game, but on many other fronts – bigger crowds, the Big One – he’s done pretty well.

Good luck to him in the new role.