17th January 2022
The first round of the 2022 Rugby League Challenge Cup – or the Betfred Challenge Cup, to reflect its gambling industry sponsorship – was played this weekend. 14 ties were contested, involving amateur clubs, with the winners joining 10 of the semi-professional League 1 sides in the next round. The Championship and Super League clubs will enter later in the competition with the final scheduled for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of May.
The Edinburgh Eagles versus York Acorn RLC tie was played in the spacious grounds of the Royal High School in the suburb of Barnton in Scotland’s capital city. Beforehand, I had wondered if it might be something of a mismatch. Whilst the Eagles had a distinguished pedigree of Challenge Cup participation, their qualification was through virtue of winning the 5-team Scottish National League in 2021. By contrast, the visitors will play this season in the highest tier of the amateur game in England – the Premier Division of the National Conference League – having won promotion last year.
The early passages of play suggested that my concerns were justified, as the Eagles were 0-10 down after 5 minutes. With their first set of possession, York engineered a three-man overlap on the right-hand side to run in a straightforward try. Then, when they next had the ball, some accurate passing and determined running produced a second try near the Eagles’ posts. At that stage, it looked as if York had a clear advantage in the speed of their play-the-balls and the ease with which their confident passing was stretching the Eagles’ defence.
However, the home side did not capitulate and indeed, for the remainder of the first half, the play was much more evenly balanced. A neat grubber kick by half-back Alex Williams led to confusion in the York rearguard and a try for Roserutabua Tawanayavulala, and it was only just before the interval that York scored again to give themselves some breathing space with a 16-6 half-time lead.
The match was watched by a few dozen spectators, mainly on the clubhouse side of the ground. I viewed the action from the grass bank than ran alongside the opposite touchline, on which I was able to move with the play as it ebbed and flowed. I did take a time-out to sit on a concrete step near one of the corner flags for my lunchtime snack – it had been a 1.30pm kick-off – and was rewarded when this third York try was registered right in front of me.
The game took an unexpected turn in the opening minutes of the second half, when the Eagles scored two converted tries to take the lead at 18-16. The first of these followed a sweeping move involving 5 or 6 players and then a long run by Orisi Waibuta over a combined distance of about 80 yards: a brilliant try, which I suspect won’t be bettered by many others in this year’s Challenge Cup competition.
As the try-scorers’ names indicate, the Eagles’ cause was aided by the presence in their match squad of several Fijians – members of the British Army, I was informed by one of the home officials – who brought a distinct physicality to their running and tackling. It seemed to me that, at that stage, the York side was somewhat rattled and, no doubt, also rather perplexed after the flying start that they had made to the game.
But it was now the visitors’ turn to re-group. With the bustling prop forward Adam Endersby leading the way, they manoeuvred themselves into position to score a couple of short range tries against a tiring defence, aided by the Eagles conceding repeat sets of possession following a couple of needless penalties. This time, as the daylight faded, the lead that York Acorn built up was not to be overturned. They came away with a victory by 38 points to 24, the reward for which will be a home tie in the second round against the London-based Wests Warriors.
It was an afternoon well spent. The match was played without scrums (as a continued Covid precaution) and, given the considerable additional demands that this places on players’ fitness, I thought that both sides did well to maintain their levels of energetic commitment for the game’s full duration. It was soundly refereed, the official maintaining a zealous (but appropriate) approach to any tackle involving contact with the head. And it also seemed to be played in a good spirit, the only bout of brief fisticuffs occurring right at the very end, when, for some reason, the red mist seemed to descend on three or four players following the final tackle.
As noted, the journey’s end for this season’s Rugby League Challenge Cup – its 125th anniversary year, as it happens – will be at Tottenham, rather than the usual Wembley (where the final will return to in 2023). For most followers of the competition, that journey began – metaphorically at least – at the weekend at the grounds of amateur clubs across the heartlands of the sport: Leigh, Castleford, Hull et al. For a select few of us, it began at the Royal High School in Edinburgh.