ON FORM it looks like being a Castleford Tigers versus Warrington Wolves final in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup this year.
Every player and coach interviewed ahead of either semi-final will claim form “counts for nothing” when the competition reaches the semi-final stage, but it’s better to have it than not.
Tigers are the only club left in with any consistent form under their belts, being unbeaten in their last six games and having seen off Sunday’s opponents Widnes Vikings twice already this year.
Knee injury victim Grant Millington is a big loss and suspensions handed to back-rower Weller Hauraki and particularly winger Justin Carney are a significant blow.
But Tigers won at Wigan in the previous round without Carney – also due to suspension – and the absence of Millington and Hauraki didn’t stop them running in 12 tries against London four days ago, so they can cope.
Widnes have pulled off some impressive victories this season and boast one of Super League’s stand-out pivots in stand-off Kevin Brown.
After a strong start to the year they have struggled to recapture that form recently, but had a confidence-boosting win over Hull KR last weekend.
It could be close and Cas will need to keep Brown in check, but if they can do that, they have the tools to close the game out. The draw was a good one for the competition and it’s positive that – whoever wins on Sunday – one team will be appearing at Wembley for the first time in the summer era. That is a boost for a competition in decline, due to issues including poor scheduling. A two-month gap between the quarter-finals and semis, followed by just a fortnight’s build-up to the final, is far from ideal.
Warrington are bidding for a fourth Cup final triumph under coach Tony Smith, but have been up and down recently. Defeats by Widnes and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats were a setback to their hopes of a top-four finish in First Utility Super League, but they bounced back with a very impressive victory away to Catalan Dragons in Perpignan last Saturday.
Opponents Leeds Rhinos – who travelled to the south of France the week before their 2008 semi-final defeat by St Helens and the Wembley loss to Warrington two years ago – will hope that has taken something out of them.
It’s one win each between the teams this year, but Warrington have improved as the season has gone on, while Leeds’ performances have dipped alarmingly and they are going into Saturday’s tie on the back of a dismal 20-14 Headingley loss to Bradford Bulls. Coach Brian McDermott rested several players for that one, which may pay off this weekend. However, if it doesn’t they will be out of the Challenge Cup having already suffered a major setback to their hopes of finishing as league leaders.
Surely Leeds won’t play as badly again as they did six days ago. Kevin Sinfield’s return from suspension will give them a lift and they have big-game players who are experienced and have a proven track record at the semi-final stage – but so do Warrington.
It is a tough one to call, though Warrington’s speed around the ruck could give them an edge. It is the sort of game which could go down to an individual piece of magic, a mistake or maybe a call by the referee.
Leeds are capable of rising to the occasion and they certainly have enough motivation, but they will need to find a big improvement from recent weeks, particularly with ball in hand, to avoid yet more Challenge Cup disappointment.
The RFL deliberately chose a small venue for this weekend’s Castleford-Widnes Challenge Cup semi-final in order to create a sell-out.
Headingley Carnegie was considered, but rejected as being too large, though a 10,000 crowd there does make for a good atmosphere.
The governing body announced on Tuesday that all 12,005 tickets for Sunday’s clash at Leigh have now been sold. Marketing director Mark Foster described that as “fantastic”, though it’s debatable whether it’s really anything to boast about for a semi-final between two teams who haven’t appeared at Wembley since the early 1990s. Details of ticket sales for the previous day’s semi-final, between Leeds and Warrington at St Helens’ 18,000-capacity Langtree Park, have not been released, though the gate is unlikely to match the 16,000 who watched Rhinos lose to Bradford Bulls at Headingley last Friday.
Strangely in rugby league bigger games attract lower crowds, as seen every year in the play-offs. Maybe the new league structure will address. And the top teams being exempt until the fifth round may help the Challenge Cup, but the competition needs a major overhaul. That should start with a return to a spring final, otherwise it will continue to decline.