THE LADBROKES Challenge Cup semi-final draw has added more interest to Friday’s already massive showdown between Leeds Rhinos and St Helens.
The first versus second clash in First Utility Super League will come less than a month before the teams meet with a place at Wembley up for grabs.
For the first time, one of this year’s semi-finals will be staged on a Friday night, July 31, with the second taking place the following afternoon.
Rhinos, Saints and the other semi-finalists – Warrington Wolves and Hull KR – were today in discussions with the RFL over venues and dates for the ties.
Skipper Kevin Sinfield sees the semi-final as another in a run of huge matches for Rhinos.
“I don’t know if it will add any more spice to this week, but it’s very tight up at the top of the table and I think if we can stay in the top-two, in whatever order, it will make it mouthwatering for the semi,” he said. “We’ve had tussles with them in semi-finals over the years and they haven’t always been pretty for us, but we’re certainly looking forward to this one.”
Rhinos are through to their 15th semi-final of the summer era, which began in 1996. It will be the sixth time Rhinos have played Saints in the last-four of the Cup during that time, Leeds having won two of those previous ties.
Both teams have four Super League matches before the Cup game and Sinfield added: “It gives us a bit of time to hopefully get some bodies back.
“We’ve lost Sutty [Liam Sutcliffe] for the season, but it gives everybody else a target to aim for and something to look forward to.”
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington reckons the Cup clash will be a “50-50 game”, whatever happens between now and then.
“It is a great tie and with how tight the league is, we have got four other semi-finals before then,” Hetherington said.
“It is another semi-final a game for both teams and it will come down to
who performs on the day and the team that manages injuries in the best possible way.
“We play Saints on Friday and we will meet them again in the Super-8s and then who knows for the play-offs, but it is possible Leeds and Saints could have a series of games between now and the end of the year.”
Hetherington is hoping for a Yorkshire venue, after Rhinos faced Warrington Wolves at St Helens’ Langtree Park in a 2014 semi-final.
The Leeds chief also believes Headingley is the “ideal” venue for the other tie, between Hull KR and Warrington.
The BBC will televise both games live and have a major say in which one is staged on the Friday evening.
Rhinos play host to Catalans Dragons in a home Super League game on Sunday, July 26, while Saints are in action two days earlier against Hull KR.
Hetherington said it’s unlikely Leeds will bring their final game of the weekly rounds forward to given them more preparation for the Cup tie.
“I am loathed to do that,” he said. “I came out very strongly against it when Hull KR were forced to move a game the other week.
“So far this season every one of our games has been played as per the fixture list, so our fans can’t have any complaints.”
St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham put a brave face on the draw. He said: “Any tie was going to be tough.
“If you have any dreams of playing at Wembley, you’ve got to face tough teams, so we’ll take it.”