WHEN I made my debut, if someone had said I would play at Wembley and make 400 career appearances, I would have laughed at them.
Both are really special, but to do them at the same time is a bit of a weird coincidence.
I saw before last week’s game I was on 399 for my career and when I wasn’t selected, it occurred to me that the Challenge Cup final would be a great time to achieve a milestone.
The Cup final already is special, but I am just honoured to have played so many games, for Leeds and my country as well.
Hopefully there’s a few more in me yet.
Leeds are good at marking personal occasions, like a certain number of games and these personal accolades are nice; you never get bored of them, but the biggest thing is the team.
I know everyone will say that, but it’s true.
We go through a lot together, training every day, working hard and going through a lot of pain at times and it’s all for occasions like tomorrow.
I won’t look back on my 400th game with any pleasure unless we are celebrating with the Cup in the changing room afterwards.
I can remember my Leeds debut, when I came off the bench against Salford at Headingley in 2001. It feels like yesterday and if I’m honest, it has gone too quickly.
I am trying to slow these weeks down and make the most of every game now. As rugby players we live week by week and look forward to the game at the weekend and this season seems to have flown by.
It doesn’t seem too long since I was an 18-year-old running about in my first game. That’s almost half a lifetime ago now, but I have enjoyed every moment.
I feel lucky to have represented the city I was born in and my country and I am proud of every game I’ve played.
The fact we’ve been in so many big finals and won so much is a huge bonus.
I am fortunate to be part of a great club and to have been in some great teams, with great players who work hard for each other.
It is not easy to get into games like Challenge Cup and Grand Finals.
A lot of hard work and dedication goes into it, so tomorrow will be another occasion I want to soak up and enjoy.
We will be based in London, or just outside it, by the time you read this and the clock will really be ticking down towards kick-off.
One advantage of having played in a few finals is we know the routine and we’re comfortable with what we’ll be doing.
We know how to handle big situations and the key to that is staying relaxed. You don’t want to play the game too early, which is something we’ve maybe been guilty of in the past.
By that I mean we’ve played our big game in the semi-final or peaked a bit too soon.
This time we are staying relaxed and not putting too much pressure on ourselves.
The important thing is to enjoy the occasion, because you never know when or if you will get the opportunity again, without getting too wrapped up in it.
Last year we put a lot of emphasis on the Challenge Cup and the reward was really satisfying.
We were determined to stay relaxed, but there was quite a lot of pressure because of our record in finals.
Having lost the previous six, everyone at the club wanted to get their hands on the trophy and we were all aware that if it didn’t happen then, it might never do for that group of players. This year we’ve put a bit less pressure on ourselves and I think that’s contributed to us being a bit more consistent in the league. The Challenge Cup is massively important to us, but we are trying to treat every game the same and we are aiming to be successful in all competitions.
That said, obviously we realise it’s a big event and we want to play well, which is the only way we’ll achieve what we are after.
THE DAY before the final is a strange one, because most of the preparation has been done and you just want to get on with the match itself.
Today we will train and then visit the stadium for a look around and there’ll be some free time after that and chance for a relax, massage and that sort of thing.
Tomorrow will be a case of keeping things as normal as possible. It is a different situation – a bigger game, Saturday afternoon kick-off – but being professional is about adapting to those things.
We are used to staying in hotels and that’s not always ideal, you might not get to eat what you do before a home game and things like that, but it doesn’t bother me. I usually manage to stay relaxed and enjoy it.
I’ll sleep tonight, although I will be thinking about the game to come. Most of the boys are the same, there’ll be a few of us dreaming of scoring the winning try and lifting the Cup, but we’ll be trying not to get too carried away.
You have to go through the processes and do your job for the team before you get the rewards.
We have been good at doing that this year, but we have got a good team in front of us in Hull KR who will be desperate to get their hands on the trophy and we are taking nothing for granted.
The most important thing is to play well on the day. If we do that, we will give ourselves a good opportunity.
Just a final word for the boys who don’t make the team. I have been in that situation, in 2003 and it is tough.
It hurts and – while it’s not easy at the time – the big thing is to turn the disappointment into a positive in the long run.
There’s strong competition for places and Mac has a hard job to pick the team. I wouldn’t like to do it, but that’s why the coaching staff get paid so much money!