The Carnegie Challenge Cup fourth round draw was one of the most interesting for years.
Four all-Super League ties means more than a quarter of the big guns will fall at the first hurdle.
And with 12 lower division clubs playing each other there’s a real opportunity for at least one Championships outfit to progress as far as the quarter or even semi-finals, depending on future draws.
This is the first year Sky have had the rights to live Challenge Cup coverage, which on balance is a good thing.
With the BBC reducing the number of games they show it means there will still be two matches broadcast per round and it will increase coverage of the competition.
Sky tend to ignore anything they don’t have the rights to, but go big on what they do – see Formula 1 as an example.
That will mean the Challenge Cup suddenly becoming of interest to Sky Sports News and on the various magazine shows.
While the BBC opted for the all-Super League tie between Widnes Vikings and St Helens (yawn), Sky made a much more imaginative choice: the intriguing derby between Featherstone Rovers and Castleford Tigers, at Big Fellas Stadium on Saturday, which could be the game of the round.
The fourth round draw produced a series of derbies – of the seven main clubs covered by the Yorkshire Evening Post, six are playing each other – and the Fev-Cas showdown is the pick of them.
There should be a big crowd and the possibility of an upset, though that looks less likely now than when the draw was made a couple of weeks ago.
Rovers have topped the Co-op Championship for the last two years and were Grand Final winners in 2010, so have proved themselves the best team outside Super League.
But they have yet to hit top form this year and suffered only their fourth league defeat in more than two seasons when they went down 60-40 at home to Sheffield Eagles last Saturday – surely the most madcap result of this (or possibly any other) campaign.
Well-coached by Daryl Powell, their side includes a host of former Super League players – several of whom had a spell with Tigers – and they are used to winning, last weekend apart.
The one area in which Rovers had let themselves down over the last couple of years is when they have come up against Super League opposition.
They put up a decent show against Warrington Wolves in 2010, losing only 48-24, but were humbled 70-0 away to St Helens in last year’s fifth round and crushed 66-0 in a pre-season game at Leeds Rhinos three months ago.
That illustrated the gulf between the Championship and top flight, but Rovers – planning a Super League licence application in two years’ time – will be desperate for a more competitive performance on Saturday.
Tigers were on a seven-game losing run at the time of the draw, but have improved since then, winning back-to-back games against Hull KR and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats before Monday’s narrow home loss to St Helens.
The recent wins will have boosted confidence in the camp at a time when their season looked to be running away from them and, crucially, there are signs they are finally beginning to get their leaky defence sorted out.
Tigers are conceding an average of exactly 30 points per game this year, but let in only 18 against Saints and 16 three days earlier in the win over Wakefield.
Whatever happens on Saturday, it’s unlikely to be dull. Rovers can score points – 122 in four Championship fixtures so far – but as last weekend proved, they are also brittle defensively.
Tigers have had trouble against lower division opposition in recent cup campaigns, losing to Widnes and Barrow and only seeing off Halifax in sudden-death extra-time.
Their full-time training ought to give them an edge, though on the other hand it is their third game in nine days, while Rovers have played just once in that period.
Tigers should prove too strong, but Rovers aren’t without a real chance, if they can stick with their higher-ranked opponents in the early stages.
The tie, sadly, does have potential for crowd trouble. The governing body will be watching, with the 2014 licence process in mind, so the very least that’s required is a good occasion off the field.
Leeds Rhinos are desperate to win the Challenge Cup after defeats in their last five finals, including 2010 and 2011.
Especially with home advantage, they will be fancied to see off Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, whose form has dipped since the win over Catalan four games ago, tomorrow night.
Monday’s 52-10 demolition of London Broncos was a morale-boosting performance for Leeds, who ran in 10 tries.
If Danny McGuire returns from injury and Rob Burrow is given the all-clear on his shoulder problem, Leeds will be tough to keep out.
They are defending strongly and should they maintain that, Wildcats – who lack a cutting edge – will struggle to score points.
Wakefield, though, are well-organised and can be tough to break down when they get their game together, as they proved in the win over Catalan. They also gave Warrington a fright the week before when they rattled up 30 points.
They have three ex-Leeds players and with both sides’ playing their third game in a week (Friday-Monday-Friday) it could come down to who handles that the better, as is the case in all the all-Super League ties.
After recent disappointments, Wildcats’ first aim will be a competitive performance. Realistically, anything on top of that will be a bonus.
Batley Bulldogs will fancy a cup run this year, under coach John Kear – who guided Sheffield Eagles to the trophy in 1998 and won it against seven years later with Hull.
Obviously they won’t go all the way, but if they win at Hunslet Hawks on Sunday and then draw another Championships club, a money-spinning quarter-final place is a possibility.
That will be the motivation for all the lower division sides ahead of this weekend’s ties – something which would be taken away from them were the competition to be seeded, as some of the current format’s critics suggest.
Bulldogs should be a little too strong and experienced for Hawks, who are still finding their feet with a rebuilt team under boss Barry Eaton – though the recent loss at Swinton Lions should serve as a warning to the visitors.
Dewsbury Rams are one of the few lower division sides to beat Super League opposition in the Challenge Cup during the Super League era.
They saw off Sunday’s hosts London Broncos way back in 1996, but a repeat this weekend is unlikely.
Broncos are backing up from a tough Easter period, have a leaky defence and are low on confidence, but will see Rams’ visit as an opportunity to get their season back on track.
Rams are much improved this year and capable of giving London a game, but the hosts should pull clear in the final quarter, when full-time training tells.
For what it’s worth (as usually, I can’t tip a wheelbarrow), this column expects the following teams to enter the bag for the fifth round draw: Batley Bulldogs, Bradford Bulls, Castleford Tigers, Catalan Dragons, Halifax, Hull, Leeds Rhinos, Leigh Centurions, London Broncos, Oldham, St Helens, Salford City Reds, Sheffield Eagles, Swinton Lions, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors.