RL Weekly: Wembley Wisdom, Relegation Desperation & Silent Assassins

The triple-header thrills make way to a Super League survival battle
12:00, 17 Aug 2023

Play-off places and Betfred Super League survival headline this week’s return to action after a Wembley weekend that produced both dramatic theatre and great debate.

An ambitious triple-header of finals (quadruple-header if you count the morning’s schools’ final) offered up two thrilling finishes and a slice of history for the day’s protagonists. It felt special for all who made the trip, yet the day’s fluctuating attendance peaked under the RFL’s target of 60,000.

The alignment of the Betfred Women’s Challenge Cup final alongside the men’s showpiece at Wembley for the first time was most welcome, and St Helens enjoyed the buzz of that history by outclassing Leeds Rhinos despite Caitlin Beevers’ memorable try. That game kicked off before noon and although the stadium felt regrettably empty, it in fact yielded a women’s Challenge Cup record crowd of 8,338.


The iconic men’s contest then played out in dramatic fashion, although a serious crash on the M1 meant that many missed Lachlan Lam’s masterclass too, as Leigh Leopards produced a performance to back up the big talk from their big-spending owner Derek Beaumont. 58,231 were there, easily eclipsing last season’s gate at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but still well short of the 62,717 who watched Warrington Wolves and St Helens in 2019. The finals in between were of course restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

And perhaps most disappointingly of all, the stadium - maybe inevitably - had almost entirely emptied save for two boisterous pockets of Batley Bulldogs and Halifax Panthers fans for the delayed 1895 Cup Final, as Elliot Kear defied the final hooter to score a try being billed as the greatest ever seen at Wembley. That final game was due to kick off at 5:30 but ended up starting at 6pm, meaning Batley’s breathless finish and Halifax’s trophy lift happened around 8pm - over eight hours after the women’s finalists walked out of the tunnel.

As always with rugby league, the product was outstanding, the theatre chaotic, breathless, brilliant. But it felt a logistical nightmare, and many felt the running order had the wrong game on last, as well as no wriggle room to adapt to unexpected events like the motorway crash.


Last year, of course, the 1895 final was the curtain-raiser, Leigh Centurions beating Featherstone Rovers before Wigan Warriors' win over Huddersfield Giants as the main course. The addition of the women’s final to the day produced a congested headache, which left Halifax’s first Wembley win since 1987 feeling like an afterthought. Not that the Panthers fans will care one iota, of course. But imagine if that heroic Batley try on the hooter had been scored as the stadium was reaching its peak ahead of the Challenge Cup final. How special would that have been, how electric a moment to light the fuse for the big one?

Ifs and buts, of course - and it is difficult to be critical of a day that produced such magic across the board. But there were learnings for sure.

This weekend’s fixture list is back to the norm, although there is nothing remotely normal about the 2023 Betfred Super League campaign.

Wakefield Trinity’s remarkable recovery sets up their televised Friday night derby with Castleford Tigers as a genuine relegation four-pointer. Batley boss Craig Lingard returns from Wembley to take up his other job as Cas assistant alongside new boss Danny Ward, who has one of the biggest games of his coaching life to start things off. As a bizarre side note by the way, Lingard didn’t pack any shoes for his big Wembley weekend. He arrived in flip flops, spent the game bare-footed as has become his norm, and left in flip flops, muddied but proud of his team’s efforts.

With IMG ripping up rugby league’s status quo from next year, there is a palpable air of desperation both at the foot of Super League and at the top of the Betfred Championship, where another local rival, Featherstone, sits top. In short, these three close neighbours feel it is now or never to secure their place at the top table before the traditional routes into the top tier are changed.


The RFL’s Our League app will stream its latest Super League game via pay-per-view on Sunday when the cameras head to Leeds for the meeting of two out-of-sorts heavyweights as the Rhinos host Warrington. There has been a buzz around the Wolves since the announcement of Sam Burgess taking over next season but in the meantime they have to remember how to play rugby league or risk slipping out of the play-off picture completely. That seems unthinkable for a side who sat top of the table at Easter.

Leeds, four points off the top six from where they know they could do damage in the play-offs, will feel their slim hopes of rescuing a wretched season will most likely be ended by defeat. Yet while Leeds, Warrington, Salford Red Devils and the two Hull rivals scrap for those last two postseason spots, above them the defending champions have moved ominously into position.

Silent assassins St Helens moved level on points with Wigan and Leigh in second thanks to their game-in-hand win over Huddersfield on Sunday. Head coach Paul Wellens has had an eventful first few months in charge, with more defeats, injuries and RFL sanctions than he would have predicted.

But slowly, quietly, surely, Saints have eased into position behind leaders Catalans Dragons ahead of the run-in, and you would write them off now at your peril. This week’s opponents Hull Kingston Rovers cannot afford a cup final hangover, and nor can the victorious Leopards, who are back to reality with a thump for Saturday’s visit of the Dragons.


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

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