Archive Whistleblower


In the wrangle about the league structure David Matthews finds that the romance of the Cup has gone forever.

The debate about Leagues comprising 14 or 12 teams might still be in full flow but one aspect of the proposed cup competitions that could supplement a possible reduction, which certainly won’t be on view, is the magic of giant killing. The 4th Round of the FA Cup had its fair share but the days of major upsets in Rugby Union are long gone. The John Player Cup, replaced by the Pilkington Cup, brought a new dimension to the season; a competition which started with Final attendances of fewer than 10,000 became a sell out, often to watch Bath v Leicester (how they continually avoided each other on their way to Twickenham remains a mystery to this day); the other puzzle was that it was always attended by a sizeable contingent from St.Helens. This was entirely due to the two rugby mad organisers from Pilkington, John Stephens and Tony Cove, known to everyone in local rugby circles, especially as the season drew to a close. If you trace what has happened to the national knockout, you will come up with the LV= Cup, an Anglo Welsh affair which has become a development exercise for the senior clubs. There are Junior Club Competitions, which result in a Finals Day at HQ but nothing to make national headlines.

For the referee, appointment to a game which had the chance of an upset in favour of the junior club provided a totally different experience and in the early Nineties there were any number of these going round. Aspatria once drew a mighty Wasps side up to the far North West and ensured that they had to work hard for the full eighty minutes before the London side triumphed; then it was Cumbrian hospitality, complete with sausage, all the way – cup magic! My own recollection from the list of cup shocks was a trip in 1991 to Thurrock, in Essex, who had drawn London Irish – Level 1 versus Level 5, some gap between the respective divisions! Backed by a huge crowd, crammed into their tiny ground, the home side opened up a 16-0 half time lead and while everyone present was secretly thinking that they might be about to witness a major surprise, no-one really expected a team containing five internationals to lose. But defeat it was for the Irish, 16-10. The Sunday Telegraph whimsically began its report; “The uniquely Irish capacity for humour in the wake of a sporting debacle took rather longer to emerge at Oakfield on Saturday. Several tinctures had passed the lips of a committeeman in a green tie before he ventured, with a twinkle in his eye: “Thank God we’re only playing Orrell next week!”

Of course, Orrell themselves, along with Waterloo, who were both close to the top flight and never separated by four divisions from some of their unsuspecting visitors, had their moments in the Cup. There were some unforgettable Saturday afternoon encounters at Edge Hall Road and Blundellsands respectively and if you were a rugby follower living in the South who had no idea where the two clubs were situated, you very soon found out. Again, the games were a real test for the referee, none more so than in a controversial encounter at Waterloo when half the Harlequins team were obliged to leave the field in order to remove illegal studs (changed after the official inspection) before returning with the legal variety fitted.

Cup mentality extended to the County Cup Competitions, which could also be a rigorous examination of the referee’s ability to cope under pressure. To win the County Cup carried prestige, but, sadly, no longer, so where did it all go wrong? If we use Lancashire as the yardstick, the main competition, reinvented in 1971, had over thirty years of success; in 2014-15 the Trophy, Plate and Bowl survive but there are not enough teams wanting to participate in the Cup. It is possibly a surprise then to supporters on the fringe of the 14 or 12 team league dispute to find that the RFU plan to reintroduce cup competitions to complement the loss of league Saturdays. Ironically, it all began to go off the rails when the leagues were established nationally and players discovered another distraction – money.

Chelsea’s exit from the FA Cup 4th Round to Bradford might well equate to Thurrock’s memorable win over the Irish but there won’t be any repeats in rugby; the divide in fitness, strength and speed has become enormous, so romantic dreaming of cup sensations will have to be left with the football supporters.