There were few surprises at Wembley on Saturday. Hugely experienced St Helens, the reigning Super League champions, beat mid-table Castleford; their captain James Roby was magnificent, the 35-year-old hooker overshadowing his supposed England successor Paul McShane; and Cas coach Daryl Powell lost another final. Cas knew they needed to be almost perfect. That, or for Saints to have a very rare shocker. Neither happened.
Instead, we saw a high class duel between half-back pairings and full-back combinations, starring a surprise second-half guest act: Niall Evalds, Jake Trueman and Gareth O’Brien for the Tigers; Lachlan Coote, Jonny Lomax and Theo Fages for Saints before Jack Welsby arrived to steal the show.
Neither Trueman nor O’Brien were among the five Cas players who had experienced the glorious mayhem of a Wembley final before, England stand-off Lomax and France scrum-half Fages were among 12 Saints who were in the side beaten less than two years ago. The Cas trio are all uncapped, the Saints’ equivalents among 11 starting internationals. And yet there was parity for long periods.
After a dominant start, the steel in the Saints’ halves appeared to melt. Super League players should be used to a wet ball – but it’s normally Pennine precipitation that causes it, not sweat. That, and nerves, made for an opening littered with juggling acts. When Fages threw a pass to Lomax’s feet after 14 minutes, the Englishman was understandably surprised and failed to gather it, to cheers from the Cas end. It happened again five minutes later, moments after Cas had levelled with a glorious try finished by the lightning flash Evalds. The eruption of noise crackled and backfired in your ears like feedback at a Jesus and Mary Chain gig. Some candy talking.
The decibel level at the northern end ratcheted up again when Cas went ahead approaching the half-hour mark. O’Brien sent up a bomb on the last tackle. As Fages, standing in front of the posts, paused for gravity to do its thing, Trueman leapt to snatch glory and make a mug of the France star.
Saints looked shot, Alex Walmsley sensibly recuperating under a golf umbrella, watching his teammates grimly hang on for the half-time hooter as McShane, O’Brien and Trueman probed. Time and again Evalds suddenly appeared on their shoulder at speed, a cross between Mr Benn and Ben Johnson. He fired through the Saints defensive line like an arrow from the backfield.
Few could argue when Evalds joined that contradictory club of Lance Todd Trophy winners from losing sides, a second Wembley defeat in nine months for the former Salford star. He deserved better than to be made to wait on his lonesome beside the celebrating Saints party before collecting his award. He could be forgiven for considering the words of Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
Fages didn’t even make it out for the second half, whether due to the reported shoulder injury or simply committing too many errors for Saints coach Kristian Woolf. Being able to throw on someone as talented as Jack Welsby is rather unfair, though. Lingering wide in Lomax’s usual stand-off role but in Fages’ favoured right-hand channel, Welsby picked up a loose ball in centre field, ambled unhurried towards the right touchline, and realised he could get an overlap if he timed it right. So that’s what he did, Tommy Makinson putting Saints back in front. If Shaun Wane doesn’t take Welsby – the 20-year-old who plays like a 30-year-old, just doing whatever is required – to the World Cup, he must think more of his squad depth than most.
Reliant on their ball-spraying agility, Cas could barely complete a set let alone build pressure when they needed to, Roby and my Lance Todd recipient Coote managed the closing quarter to perfection as the second half nudged towards an hour long. Having conductors who have seen it all before helps considerably.
Having the Englishman who has scored more Super League tries than any other over the past two years ought to help, too. But despite Cas repeatedly working their way to the right, they could not put winger Derrell Olpherts away in space. The former Dewsbury youngster, playing in his first Wembley final at 29, only made his top flight debut at 26. Six years ago he was playing in League 1 for Hemel Stags, having spent two seasons out of the professional game.
It was a triumph for Olpherts just being here, and it was the same for many Castleford fans. Three rows in front of the press box a little boy in a Cas shirt and cap hugged his Tiger teddy and sobbed into his dad’s arms as the dream petered out in front of him. An experienced sage went forward to console him and tell him to be proud. It was a day when the whole sport could do that.
Whether pressurised by the government or economic necessity, the World Cup appears to be going full steam ahead this autumn in the face of fierce negativity from Australia. World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton said: “We expect all 21 nations to be here – there’s an incredible appetite. We’re very confident Australia will participate.” Although, he also admitted: “It’s one thing getting to the start line, another getting through all 61 games.”
The International Rugby League chairman, Troy Grant, said that the support from the UK government was “unprecedented in rugby league history”. With the BBC showing every game in the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments live, a postponement would be a nightmare for the broadcaster. Grant admitted it’s “critical it goes ahead” because “the broadcast opportunities, especially for the women’s game, are extraordinary – it will be a great leap forward”.
Given there has been no income from international rugby league since November 2019, Grant says it needs to happen this year for the game’s sake. Denying the IRL were “flexing its muscles” he claimed they are “fulfilling our responsibility to the game”. Dutton acknowledged that bringing 400-500 players and staff from Australasia on charter flights was “digging deep into our pockets”, but said he was still “confident we’ll provide the biggest ever financial return to the IRL.”
Clubcall: Featherstone Rovers
Fev added another trophy to their honours list on Saturday when they held off a spirited York City Knights to win the 1895 Cup in a high-scoring curtain-raiser at Wembley. That was their eighth piece of silverware in 11 years but they have yet to win the prize they covet most: promotion to Super League. Having been second division champions in four successive years when licensing ruled out promotion, and beaten narrowly by Toronto in the play-off final in 2019, Rovers have been consistently among the Championship’s best.
Having both won all their league games so far, at the half-way mark Rovers and Toulouse are clearly way ahead of the pack and will surely meet in the Championship final in October, baring a play-off calamity. Those folk who bizarrely mock the notion of a club that regularly attracts 20% of the town’s whole population getting into the top flight, should ask themselves whether Super League would really be worse off with Fev than some of the current crop of also-rans.
York’s first appearance at Wembley in 90 years did not end with silverware and now they must turn their attentions to staying in the Championship. Expected by many to be promotion contenders having had their ambitious application to replace Toronto in Super League rejected last winter, York have surprisingly struggled this season, and are just a place above the relegation zone. On Sunday, the Knights host bottom club Swinton – who have lost their first 13 games – at their splendid new stadium, knowing a win is essential to avoid a relegation scrap. Second-from-bottom Oldham, who have brought in Brian McDermott to aid their survival bid, will be hoping a Wembley hangover enables an away win.
Fifth and last
Those of us who were disappointed that Castleford wore all-black at Wembley and not the amber jerseys synonymous with their 1986 triumph in the Challenge Cup were lifted by their fans. Thousands donned traditional club colours, making the northern end a colourful waspish wave of amber, orange and black polyester, red faces and empty seats.
Near me, one chap combined an amber replica jersey with dyed orange hair. Quite a look. Another duo wore yellow and black tiger print viscose slacks: in the 30-degree sauna they must have been regretting that almost as much as the brave fella who came in a Christmas pudding costume.