Bolton was basked in glorious sunshine on Sunday as rugby league took over the Macron Stadium. Taking both semi-finals to a football ground as a double-header was a gamble of sorts, but boy did it pay off. A sold-out stadium, great weather and two engaging games added up to a fantastic result all around for those who attended. For those who didn’t, well you missed out.
Probably only the most ardent Catalans fans expected their side to trouble St Helens yesterday. Probably no one expected the Dragons to complete dominate Justin Holbrook’s side and hand them a huge lesson from minute one to minute 80. Catalans played probably the most perfect match you’ll see for some time, barely making a mistake in attack or defence. Their set completion was outstanding, their line speed impressive, their defence rock solid. They ran the ban every time with enthusiasm and intent, and Saints clearly couldn’t cope with their energy levels.
Praise must go to every Catalans player and their coach, the much-maligned Steve McNamara. The ex-England boss has his fair share of critics, and this column has been one in the past, but yesterday McNamara made them all eat their own words. The French team pulled one of the biggest Cup upsets in years. Their turnaround since the end of last season, when they were in the Million Pound Game, has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Credit must also go to Steve Price and his side for smashing Leeds 48-12. The Rhinos are both down on form and on luck right now, but Warrington barely gave them a sniff. The way they finished the game, scoring try after try in the final 30 minutes, was quality. The Rhinos had no answers and Daryl Clark and Kevin Brown had a field day. The Wire will fancy their chances at Wembley this year.
St Helens have been a class above everyone this year but they barely got off the bus on Bolton. They simply choked in the hot sun and with the score 27-0 at half-time, the game was already over. They did manage to score 16 points in the second half, and put up something off a fight, but Catalans responded with another 18 to emphasise their dominance. Nobody saw this limp display from Saints coming. Coach Holbrook looked a broken man in the halls of the Macron afterwards. He has a huge job on his hands now to lift a gutted team.
St Helens were pretty bad yesterday but Leeds were downright awful. Sure, you can’t expect much from a team with one win in their past 12. But considering the nature of the contest, what was at stake and the high-profile stage it was on, you’d expect more from the Rhinos. But their performance was meek at best. Kevin Sinfield protected his players afterwards, saying: “I’m not going after the players, I don’t think it’s fair. We’re all in it together.” If they keep this up, they’ll be relegated, together, in the next two months.