Leeds stalwart Carl Ablett is desperate to make up for the heartbreak of three wembley defeats, Peter Smith reports.
EXPERIENCED back-rower Carl Ablett reckons there’s nothing mysterious behind Leeds Rhinos’ failure to get over the line in recent Challenge Cup finals – they just haven’t played well enough on the day.
Ablett has been ever-present for Rhinos at the new Wembley, suffering the heartbreak of Challenge Cup final defeat in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
After the disappointments against Warrington Wolves twice and Wigan Warriors – plus earlier defeats by Bradford Bulls (2000 and 2003) and Hull (2005) – many fans regard Saturday’s showdown with Castleford Tigers as Leeds’s best chance of ending their Challenge Cup drought.
But Ablett, 28, insisted that is what has happened in the past – since Leeds last lifted the trophy in 1999 – has no bearing on how this weekend’s game will go.
“It is another game at a great stadium and a chance to win the Challenge Cup,” he observed.
“It is a different year and a different team, with different players.
“You want to draw on experiences you’ve had in the past, but you can’t go comparing games and finals.
“This one is going to be different. It is unique in its own way and it is a different team we are playing against, so it’s about whoever turns up on the day and performs.
“We just haven’t been good enough the last few times. We have enough experience in our team to know we have to be good this week to be able to get our hands on the trophy.”
As far as Ablett is concerned, that is the be-all and end-all: Rhinos have to produce a performance this time, something they haven’t managed at Wembley in previous years.
There were excuses for past defeats – particularly with the loss of key players to injury – but Ablett said: “We just weren’t good enough.
“It was nothing to do with preparation or our attitude going into the games; we just didn’t perform on the day.
“Things didn’t come off for us and the other team had a lot of momentum. The other teams have played very well.
“That will be the case again and if we turn over a lot of ball or we are not up to scratch defensively it will be the same again, we will get beaten and we will deserve to be.
“It is important we do things right and we focus on performing like we have at times this year and we know we can.”
Leeds set their stall out with a dominant display in their 24-16 semi-final win over Warrington, after weeks of scratchy displays in the league.
But Tigers were just as impressive demolishing Widnes Vikings 28-6 and Ablett said: “We know Cas are really dangerous and if you are not on your game defensively, they can score some tries.
“You only have to look at how many points they have scored in Super League this year.
“Defensively they are pretty good and if we are not on, they will take advantage.”
Wembley is special, but Ablett is no stranger to big games.
As well as three Challenge Cup finals, he was a member of England’s 2013 World Cup squad, boasts five Super League Grand Final winner’s rings – scoring vital tries in the 2011 and 2012 title deciders – and has played in a nap hand of World Club Challenge ties, being on the victorious side twice.
Despite that impressive cv, he said the prospect of Wembley is just as enticing now as before his first appearance there, four years ago.
“It is exciting,” he said. “The week leading up to it is a bit different to what we normally do.
“Going to Wembley to play in front of 80,000 people, if you can’t get up for a game like that, you never will. It is a great stadium to play at, it will be a great atmosphere and it is just about performance on the day.
“I am sure the experience of playing in big games will help, but I don’t think you can draw too much from that.
“We know we have to play well to win and it will be about focusing on the little things in the game and making sure we do them well enough to get the win.”
Unlike the majority of Tigers’ squad, most of the Leeds players at least know what to expect on the day itself and in the immediate build-up, including tomorrow’s traditional eve-of-final walkabout.
But Ablett said: “Potentially you know what’s coming, but then you get on the field, drop three balls and you are stood under your sticks, 18-0 down.
“Preparation can be as good as you want, but when you get on the field, that’s when it needs to count. We know what Wembley week entails and we know how to approach the game.
“We will be concentrating on what we need to do. It is a great opportunity and it is exciting and hopefully we can do ourselves justice.”
Everything points to the final being a tight game. Rhinos won by eight points in the Super League fixture at the MAH Jungle in May, but Cas felt they were unlucky not to claim the spoils when battling to a hard-fought draw at Headingley Carnegie last month.
The teams have been neck and neck in the Super League table for most of the year and Ablett said: “They have had a great year.
“They have scored more points than us in the league and defensively they have been very strong as well.
“It is pretty evenly matched. Hopefully we will both be near full-strength and we can go out and have an entertaining final.
“It will be great for the game if two Yorkshire teams go out there and have a close game. Hopefully that’s what will happen.”
Unlike previous years, Rhinos will be going to Wembley with almost a full squad for coach Brian McDermott to select from.
“They have got a few injuries,” Ablett said of Tigers. “But I hope their players pull through.
“You never know when your next opportunity will come. Hopefully we can have a real tough battle and the winner will be the one that plays best on the day.”
Ablett is developing a reputation as a player who turns it on in the most crucial matches. He was outstanding in the semi-final win over Warrington, but does not consider himself a big-game player.
“I just try to be consistent,” he said. “I try not to let my performances drop, whatever game it is.
“I wouldn’t say I approach big games any differently, it’s just another game. I try to do what works for me and hopefully it comes off.
“I seem to score a few tries and sometimes that catches the eye. If you do that people tend to think you have had a good game.
“But it’s a team effort, that’s the big thing. I am not bothered about scoring, as long as we win.
“I think I have been consistent this year and I am pretty happy with my form. I’ve had a few little niggles which have held me back a bit and I had a two-game suspension, but these next few weeks are the ones that matter.
“You want to be playing well in the big games, when it’s tough and there’s two teams going at it.
“Hopefully I can maintain my performances, we can play well as a team and we can go on and lift a few trophies.”