The Armchair Pundit: Oldham keep Challenge Cup magic alive

There are no accurate figures on how many Oldham Roughyeds fans regularly tune into BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, but one suspects a few more than usual might be doing so come 8.30am on Thursday.
That is because the Corporation’s flagship national radio current affairs show will play host to the draw for the sixth round of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup, where regular present John Humphrys will conduct the draw along with Martin Offiah.
No doubt the curmudgeonly Humphrys will introduce the draw as “now a special treat for all you rugby league fans” in the way Grandstand used to as if aficionados of the 13-man code were a separate species.
But that will matter little to those in the Lancashire town, who will no doubt be hoping to draw another Super League side and be dreaming of another upset after sealing their place in the last 16 with a 36-22 triumph at Hull Kingston Rovers last Saturday.
Oldham head coach Scott Naylor was somewhat more pragmatic than that, fully aware his side are unlikely to progress much further than this stage. For example, competition sponsors Ladbrokes make them the rankest of rank outsiders to go all the way at 1000/1.
To put that into perspective, the bookmaker will offer you 500/1 on the next biggest outsiders, Dewsbury Rams.
Indeed, Naylor’s main concern is ensuring the Roughyeds – currently ninth in the Kingston Press Championship – make enough money from this Cup run to ensure they remain financially stable.
“The money will help us massively and that’s what we’re desperate for,” Naylor told the BBC in the wake of the win.
“That would then kick us on for next season and the season after, and then maybe we can start talking about trying to win things.
“Right now we’re a club that needs a few quid and the next round will give us that, hopefully.”
The inevitable comparison to make is with that of Leigh Centurions’ performance in the 2015 Challenge Cup, where they saw off Salford Red Devils and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats before bowing out to Warrington Wolves in the quarter-finals.
But that is pretty much where all – if any – similarities between what Leigh achieved and Oldham overcoming the odds start and finish.
For starters, Leigh are a well-funded full-time outfit and went close to earning promotion to Super League in the Qualifiers last season, with a squad containing plenty of players with experience of higher-level rugby.
Oldham, meanwhile, are a part-time side who only achieved promotion back to the second tier from League One last year and are being forced to once again play matches outside their own borough at Stalybridge Celtic FC’s Bower Fold due to their Whitebank ground not yet being up to Championship standard.
The attritional nature of rugby league along with rapid developments in sports science mean full-time sides should be able to overcome the part-timers through superior fitness and physical preparation, which perhaps makes this result even more astounding.
That is not to denigrate Oldham’s players or suggest they do not put the work in off the field or in the gym, but merely to underline how they have to manage demands of juggling work – and no doubt family – commitments with earning a bit on the side playing rugby.
This is a club where few, if any, of their supporters will be old enough to remember their last appearance in a Challenge Cup final, which came way back in 1927 – a full two years before the showpiece game moved to Wembley.
That 26-7 win over Swinton remains the last of Oldham’s three Challenge Cup triumphs and if this was the world of American sport this would no doubt have spawned a story around some mythical curse.
Who knows, maybe their lack of success in rugby league’s premier knock-out competition really is down them being damned for all eternity after Fred Ashworth said “bollocks!” very loudly in front of the Lady Mayoress at a civic reception held to celebrate the aforementioned triumph?*
But whatever the reason, Oldham have shown why everyone loves a cup competition and underlined that any team really can beat another in a one-off game.

*Dramatization – may not have happened.

History repeating: Spare a though for Hull KR coach James Webster, for this is the second season in a row a side he has been in charge of have been eliminated from the Challenge Cup by lower-league opposition.
The defeat no doubt brought back unwelcome memories for the Australian, who was in charge of Wakefield when they blew a 22-0 first-half lead to crash out 36-30 to Leigh in last year’s sixth round.
That proved Webster’s final game in charge of the crisis-stricken club and although no-one is suggesting he will be imminently relieved of his duties at Rovers, the result moved chairman Neil Hudgell to ominously state: “We have dishonest people in our club, and they will be smoked out.”
As for Webster, he described the defeat as “the biggest embarrassment of my career since before I left school.”
Ironically, Leigh became victims of a Cup upset this year as they were edged out 10-8 in a close-fought game away to in-form League One outfit Toulouse Olympique.
Again though, this was perhaps only an upset in the sense that Toulouse are in the division below. They have swept all before them in the third tier so far this season, but have form when it comes to defeating higher-level opponents.
Who can forget their memorable run to the semi-finals 11 years ago, which included defeating Widnes Vikings and paving the way for their first entry into the British league system?
Sadly, there was no fairytale ending for the last of the amateur sides in the competition though as Castleford side Lock Lane went down 80-4 away to Halifax.

Sweet relief: It is difficult to assess whether Paul Anderson or Brian McDermott was the most relieved man in Super League as both Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos had something to celebrate in what has been a mostly wretched season so far for both teams.
Anderson, in a typically understated manner, described himself as “just pleased” as the Giants managed to grind out an 11-0 win over league leaders Warrington Wolves, despite some tenacious defence from the visitors.
Meanwhile, Leeds edged out Hull FC 20-18 in a thriller at Headingley and perhaps a sign of the high standards head coach McDermott sets for the side came in the form of the criticism he had for scrum-half Jordan Lilley after the game.
“We’ve got some middle men who were running on fumes, he’s got to stop waiting for the big play and needs to get the ball in his hands, run and go at the other team,” said McDermott of Lilley, who scored a try and kicked four goals.
It brought an end to Hull’s five-game winning streak, while Warrington’s loss at Huddersfield means they have now lost three of their last four – a run which was enough to have head coach Tony Smith publicly talking of changes to their training routine and trying a few different things.
Is Smith in danger of trying to change when perhaps he does not need to though? Do not forget, this a Wolves team which won their first seven games, although have no doubt been affected by the injury to stand-out performer Chris Sandow, who had struck up a promising half-back partnership with Kurt Gidley.
That start makes Warrington’s recent run look even worse, yet it is too easy to get wrapped up in the myth of being “in” or “out” of form – something all of us are guilty of.
Perhaps, as Tobias J Moskowitz and L John Wertheim argue in their book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won and Lost, Smith should be looking at it as three losses in their last five games rather than four.
Both statements are true, but paint a somewhat different picture.
Sure, short-term runs of wins and losses occur, but they are too small of a sample size to be statistically significant in predicting results over the course of the season or even in the next game.
And in the case of Leeds and Huddersfield, it is probably fair they have been underachieving and are starting to pick up results which would be expected of sides like them.

We’re all up for sale: Former Castleford Tigers player Ryan McGoldrick adopted a novel approach to trying to find a new club when he put himself up for sale on eBay, the BBC reported.
McGoldrick had been due to play for a team in New South Wales, only for them to fold.
Describing himself somewhat tongue-in-cheek as a “1981 antique rugby league player”, having “only surface scratches and rust” and coming “with a full service history”, the 35-year-old had reached £215 before the auction site took down his listing for breaching their terms of sale.
“There have been a couple of enquiries from England too, but I have told them that postage comes at the buyer’s expense,” said McGoldrick.
“They’ll have to make sure they can afford to get me over there.”

Legends honoured: It was perhaps little surprise that Billy Boston and Gus Risman were the first two all-time great to be inducted into the newly-founded Wales Rugby League Hall of Fame.
Both are already among the 25 members of The RFL’s Hall of Fame and will now be honoured by their home nation for their contribution to the sport.
On the field though, the difficulties continue for Wales’ two professional teams in Kingston Press League One. North Wales Crusaders were beaten 31-24 away to London Skolars and South Wales Scorpions went down 30-14 to previously-winless Hemel Stags.

Amateur score of the week: Egremont Rangers 26 Hull Dockers 20, National Conference League Premier Division. The Cumbrians chalked up their first win of the season in a close-fought contest, while Dockers are still looking to get their first points on the board.
Founded in the first decade of the 20th Century, Egremont have produced a number of players who have gone on to play international rugby at both amateur and professional level.
Dockers have been around since prior to the formation of the Northern Union, with their foundation coming in 1880.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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