All eyes on West Yorkshire derby clash in huge year for the Cup – Peter Smith

THIS IS a huge year for the Betfred Challenge Cup and the sixth round draw set up some intriguing action.

By Peter Smith
Thursday, 17th March 2022, 6:00 am

Top of the list is the showdown between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers, at Headingley. Not exactly a battle of two teams who are in form, but West Yorkshire derbies are always eventful occasions and this one will have more riding on it than most.

The sides each have a game to get through first – Tigers at Wigan Warriors tonight and Rhinos away to Salford Red Devils tomorrow – and have won only once in the opening five Super League rounds.

A loss this weekend followed by another defeat in the Cup would effectively mean there’s nothing left to play for this year, other than avoiding relegation – and unless Toulouse Olympique sign the best part of a new squad and/or suddenly find some unexpected form, that’s not really an issue.

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The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will host the 2022 Challenge Cup final in May. Picture: Chloe Knott-Danehouse/Getty Images.

The Cup victors, though, will be only two wins away from the final and, especially if they also win this weekend, their season will suddenly be looking a lot brighter.

Tigers haven’t yet clicked under new coach Lee Radford, having played well for roughly a game and a quarter, which is probably about the same as Leeds.

But Radford knows how to win the Challenge Cup; he did it back-to-back with Hull in 2016 and 2017 and might think it’s worth putting all – or at least most – of his eggs in one basket.

A BBC-televised Cup win at Headingley would more than make up for the league defeats suffered so far.

Ryan Hall on the run during Leeds Rhinos’ 2014 Challenge Cup final win over Castleford Tigers. The two sides meet again in the Cup a week on Saturday. Picture: Steve Riding.

Older Tigers fans still have fond memories of 1998, when they won a Cup tie at Leeds to ruin the late, great Graham Murray’s first game in charge of Rhinos.

Leeds were leading with seconds left when Andrew Schick touched down from Adrian Vowles’ high kick to seal a 15-12 win for the visitors.

Rhinos have avenged that three times since, including a 2011 semi-final and at Wembley three years later and will also regard the Challenge Cup as their most realistic chance of silverware this term.

It was a decent draw for both teams, but the pairings were less kind to Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers.

Featherstone Rovers coach Brian McDermott. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Trinity face successive trips to HJ Stadium, with a league game at Warrington Wolves on Saturday being followed by a return visit in the Cup.

Logic would suggest Warrington will win both, but their form hasn’t been earth shattering so far this year and Trinity, who have shown some good signs and are on the back of their first win of the campaign last weekend, are capable of creating a shock if they play well and get some players back.

Rovers would have fancied their chances against most Super League clubs at home, but instead face a long trip to the south of France for a tie they will probably lose, against Catalans Dragons.

Even so, it is an opportunity for coach Brian McDermott and his side, who are unbeaten in all competitions this year and favourites for promotion, to measure themselves against good, top-flight opposition.

A competitive performance would be another boost to their confidence and a warning for Championship rivals that Rovers really mean business this year.

The decline of the Challenge Cup has been a sad feature of rugby league over the past couple of decades, but bringing the final forward to May is a step in the right direction.

Super League clubs need only three wins to get that far and there are fewer meetings between top-flight and lower division sides now, but a longer gap between the Cup decider and play-offs finals gives a better balance to the season.

And, though the competition is synonymous with Wembley, one-off new location for the showpiece, which will be held at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, adds a bit of extra spice.

This year’s winners will have a unique footnote in rugby league’s history. And for anyone who believes in omens, Leeds won the competition when it was moved away from Wembley in 1932 – as a one-off – and 1941 and were finalists the first time it was played at both Murrayfield (2000) and Cardiff (2005).

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