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Rugby league and baseball are rarely reckoned to have much in common, but they appear to run on parallel 20-year cycles. Each is currently staging a 1980s revival.
While baseball’s play-offs have come down to four teams whose last World Series triumphs were between 1982 and 1989, league is harking back to the era before the Wigan hegemony and the four-team Super League oligopoly that have defined its last two decades.
Hull Kingston Rovers won the National League Grand Final last Sunday, reclaiming the top-flight status they once took for granted. Hull FC will contest Saturday night’s Super League Grand Final, playing St Helens at Old Trafford.
It is, admittedly, not quite the same as the early 1980s, when the Humberside duo won three consecutive championships between them, pulled in the largest crowds in the game and in 1980 contested a Challenge Cup final remembered for the epic match-winning try scored by Rovers’ Steve Hubbard.
It is, though, a serious step back in that direction.
Hull fans generally welcomed Rovers’ victory on Sunday because it will restore the much cherished cross-city derby matches. Rovers followers, with the chippier attitude endemic to underdogs, will not necessarily reciprocate.
In a city where allegiances are defined geographically, local pride in Hull FC players such as Paul Cooke and the Horne brothers – all from the Rovers strongholds of east Hull – mixes with rueful recognition that at another time their talents would have paraded in Rovers red rather than Hull black and white.
But Hull’s success has more than local significance. Simply being there is a breakthrough, the first time since championship play-offs were reintroduced in 1999 that anyone outside the Big Four – St Helens, Wigan, Bradford and Leeds – has reached the Grand Final.
A Hull win, following their parallel breakthrough in last year’s Challenge Cup, would be irrefutable evidence of a shift in the game’s balance of power.
There is one formidable obstacle to change – St Helens. Saints topped the
regular-season table by eight points, have already taken the Challenge Cup and won their three previous Grand Finals. Players such as full-back Paul Wellens – just voted Man of Steel, league’s Player of the Year – hooker Keiron Cunningham and half-back Sean Long are proven big-match winners.
Retiring prop Paul Anderson is a hard-running behemoth with the hands of a half-back. Wing Ade Gardner has scored 30 tries, thanks not least to the promptings of Jamie Lyon.
The Australian centre Lyon achieves the remarkable on a routine basis and has topped it with a genuine miracle – forcing his way into the Kangaroos squad for the forthcoming Tri-Nations championship on the strength of his performances in England. If Saints are allowed to play, there is no stopping them.
Hull, though, have their own Australian artist at centre, the engaging veteran Sid Domic, whose paintings earned him a London show during the summer. Kirk Yeaman’s scoring feats match those of Gardner.
Wing Gareth Raynor pinballs in a manner reminiscent of Jason Robinson, while loose forward Cooke and scrum-half Richard Horne rank with the best in Britain.
Saints did win their qualifying play-off clash, but only by four points on home ground. Hull have happy memories of their first win in 18 years at Knowsley Road, 27-26 earlier this season, and of the definitive how-to-stop-Saints performance in last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final.
The single exception to Hull’s infamously bad record in finals – losing 29 out of 44 – is the Championship, forerunner of the Grand Final. Six Championship finals produced five victories.
More than superstition suggests that final number seven might also bring good fortune.
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