Inside RL: Underdogs won’t take a ‘walkover’ lying down – Smith

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Remember 2005. That is the warning to anybody associated with Leeds Rhinos who thinks Saturday’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final will be a walkover.

Ten years ago today, Rhinos were hot favourites to beat Hull in the Cup final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

Chris Chester.

Chris Chester.

They had been in scorching form that year, having lost only four times before the final and were up against unfancied opponents who – it was predicted – would be happy just to have got that far.

Like Hull KR this year, Hull had pulled off a brilliant upset victory in their semi-final and the feeling was that would prove to be their high point.

Leeds, as Super League and World Club Champions, were expected to have too much experience and all-round ability.

As it turned out, Rhinos coach Tony Smith picked the wrong team, Leeds were out-enthused and Hull won 25-24 thanks to a last-gasp try.

Rhinos had been on for the treble that year, but finished as runners-up in all three competitions.

Among the Hull substitutes that afternoon was Chris Chester, who will aim to mastermind a similar shock when his Hull KR team face Rhinos at Wembley in two days’ time.

There have been shocks in Challenge Cup finals, even in the Super League era. Hull’s victory was one of those and their coach John Kear had already inspired probably the biggest of all upsets, Sheffield Eagles’ win over Wigan Warriors in 1998.

A Hull KR triumph this weekend would probably be on a par. Leeds are odds-on favourites with the bookies and it’s easy to see why. They finished top of First Utility Super League after the opening 23 rounds, a massive 15 points ahead of 10th-placed Hull KR.

Leeds are the holders and, despite some key injuries, have a talented team packed full of experience.

They have the best backs in the competition and their defence has been in good shape in recent weeks.

Hull KR are capable of scoring points, but they also leak too many. That will be their fear, that they can’t contain Leeds if the holders’ attacking machine gets into gear.

But Rovers deserve to be at Wembley. They have beaten Wigan and Warrington Wolves en-route to the final and in both games their defence was outstanding.

They do have some Cup final experience, including hooker Shaun Lunt – who played for Leeds in their 2012 loss to Warrington – and assistant-boss Willie Poching played in losing finals and has been on both sides of the coin as a coach.

Josh Mantellato has been one of the signings of the season, they have a very pacy back division and Albert Kelly is a genuine dangerman.

Rovers’ management have been playing down his chances of making the final, but everybody expects him to play.

That in itself will be a gamble. Rhinos took a risk on Keith Senior in 2005 and Castleford Tigers did the same with Craig Huby last year and neither paid off.

The neutrals will be backing Rovers and it is good to see a different team in the final. They have nothing really to lose, but whether they can cope with the occasion remains to be seen.

Realistically, the final is Leeds’ to lose. If they play well, they will be too good for Hull KR. They have under-performed at Wembley often enough in the past, but that was against more highly-rated and experienced opposition.

Leeds should have no fears about coping with the unique atmosphere and have extra motivation in the fact Kylie Leuluai, Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock will all be playing in their final Cup tie – assuming there isn’t a replay! Even the anti-Leeds brigade would struggle to begrudge three outstanding stalwarts of the game a final Wembley winner’s medal.

The final will either be a big Leeds win or a narrow Rovers one, probably with them building a lead and holding off a late fightback.

The latter is possible and most long-serving Rhinos fans probably have that fear at the back of their mind, but logic suggests the first scenario is much more likely.

Ryan Hall

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