EVERYONE TRIES to play it down a bit, but the week leading up to a Challenge Cup final is different to any other.
The early part of the week is a mixture of doing what we normally do – reviewing the previous game and looking ahead to the next one – and special Cup final commitments.
The media interest is massive and that takes up a lot of time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Monday a few of the boys went to the official Cup final press conference, which – fortunately – was held in Leeds this year, because of the competition sponsors.
I did the Super League Show on Monday and I’ve also been on Look North and most of the boys will have some media duties to deal with. They get shared around the team.
Ideally, you want to get all that done by Wednesday afternoon, which is when everyone starts to focus a bit more on the game itself.
We travelled to London yesterday, arriving in the late afternoon and having a bit of dinner together in the hotel. Today, the plan is to visit the Cenotaph in central London for wreath-laying ceremony, which we’ve never done before.
Then after that we’ll head to Wembley and get chance to train on the pitch.
That’s a good thing because it gives players who haven’t been there before, like Paul Aiton and Joel Moon, the chance to have a look at their surroundings, get familiar with the changing rooms and what the pitch is like and that sort of thing.
Castleford will be doing the same thing, but it’s timed so we probably won’t see them.
We’ll do a last bit of media at the end of the session and then it’s a case of relaxing – maybe a walk or a coffee – until the following morning.
On the Saturday everyone will have their own routine. I like to get up early and then go back to bed for a while, but some players enjoy a lie-in.
It doesn’t bother me too much.I like to do the same things, but if I don’t get poached egg for breakfast that won’t stop me getting on the coach to the ground.
It is a Saturday afternoon kick-off, which means there isn’t too much hanging around. I think if you asked most players, they prefer it that way.
We have got used to 8pm kick-offs, so we will have to adapt, but playing in the evening stretches the day out.
You sometimes do quite a bit of thumb twiddling, so it’s much better to get up, get something to eat and then head off to the match. Once we arrive at Wembley we’ll have a quick wander on the pitch to soak up some of the atmosphere and from then on we’ll prepare just as we do for any other game: for me it will be a massage and stretch and then trying to relax before it’s time for the warm-up.
Training-wise, at this time of the year we are mainly fine-tuning and working on things we need to sort out. Sessions in the early part of the week are short and intense and things wind down as we get closer to the game.
Preparations this week have gone really well and the boys are looking in good nick.
We have got a clean bill of health, we all know the game plan and now we’ve just got to go out and make sure we perform on the day.
I’LL SAY one thing about my Challenge Cup final record – it is better than Kev Sinfield’s and Rob Burrow’s!
Tomorrow will be my fourth. I wasn’t selected in 2003 and I was injured the last time we got there, two years ago.
In a way I suppose it’s ironic we are up against a team coached by Daryl Powell in this year’s final.
He was the coach who dropped me for the final in 2003, after I scored a couple of tries in the semi, against St Helens.
That is something I do still think about, but looking back it has turned out not to be a bad thing and I have used it as motivation over the 11 years since.
It hurt at the time, but I was 20 years old and I had just burst on to the scene. I’d not had any setbacks and a lot of credit.
I don’t think Daryl made his decision for that reason, but it acted as a bit of a kick up the backside.
It brought me down to earth a bit and told me I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I am not saying I wouldn’t have gone on and done what I have done if Daryl had picked me, but it was a big motivation for the rest of my career.
I sometimes get asked if I’d swap one of my Grand Final rings for a Challenge Cup winner’s medal. I would not.
I don’t regret what’s happened in my career and I am very proud of all the Grand Finals I’ve played in.
I actually think as a club we have a very good Challenge Cup record, reaching so many finals, but we have never been good enough on the day.
I know fans and the media talk about a Cup final hoodoo, but that’s got nothing to do with it. We just haven’t played well.
This is not an excuse, but I think in the past we have probably invested a bit too much energy into winning semi-finals.
We’ve beaten Saints a couple of times, Wigan and then Warrington the other week. They have been huge games, it was a massive relief when we won and maybe we didn’t leave anything in the tank for the final. That’s what it has felt like anyway. This year we are determined to play well in the final and we will see where that takes us.
We just want to come up with a performance and do ourselves justice. If you play well and lose, you can look at yourself in the mirror afterwards and at least feel you’ve given it your best shot.
When you just don’t turn up is when you feel most disappointed.
I KNOW we are the bookies’ favourites to win tomorrow, but I don’t think there’s much in it.
Both games we’ve played against Castleford this year have been very tight and we are on the same points in the league. I think our experience of finals is probably what the odds-makers are looking at, but Cas have had a great season and they have proved they can compete with and beat just about every team in the competition.
Being honest, I don’t think many people at the start of the season would have tipped Tigers to be where they are now: level on points with Leeds, Warrington and Huddersfield and preparing for a Challenge Cup final.
They have achieved quite a lot already, but I don’t think they will settle for that. Knowing Daryl Powell, he will be pushing them to go further, to win the Cup, go well in the play-offs and build on that and be even better next year.
I don’t see any reason why they can’t continue the progress they have made over the past 12 months and everybody in our camp knows tomorrow is going to be a tough game for us.