Why a trip to St Helens might not be the worst Cup draw for Leeds Rhinos – Peter Smith

ST HELENS away is the toughest-possible draw in the Betfred Challenge Cup, but – looking on the bright side – not necessarily the worst.

By Peter Smith
Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 6:00 am
TOUGH TEST: Leeds Rhinos' Alex Sutcliffe is tackled by James Bentley in the league match between the two teams last October. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

The odds are against Leeds Rhinos this weekend, but if they win Saturday’s third round tie they will have eliminated a leading rival, while defeat would give them three free weekends when other top-flight sides are in action.

Rhinos reach at least the semi-finals more often than not and that was the case when they were having a miserable season in 2018.

That year, they drew Widnes Vikings – then the poorest team in Super League – and Championship outfit Leigh Centurions in their opening two ties, but were brushed aside by Warrington Wolves in the last four.

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FLASHBACK: Leeds Rhinos' Luke Gale, Richard Agar and Richie Myler are pictured after last season triumph over Salford Red Devils in the Challenge Cup final. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

In hindsight, they’d have been better off losing to Warrington first up and then getting extra time to rest up for an impending relegation battle.

The following season, after a big opening Cup win over third tier Workington Town, Leeds were embarrassed by Bradford Bulls in one of the worst results in the club’s history.

Losing in the last 16, though, did give Rhinos three free weekends and they finished that year quite strongly. This is not to suggest Rhinos should disregard this weekend’s game, but if they do lose the silver lining will be some valuable time off when future Cup rounds are played, so they could be relatively fresh towards the end of the Betfred Super League campaign.

On the other hand, this year’s Cup final is being staged in July, a month earlier than usual, which may benefit the finalists in their league campaign. It is possible to win both major competitions, as Leeds did six years ago, but when the finals are less than two months apart, it is a tall order.

OUTSIDE BET? Castleford Tigers' Jesse Sene-Lefao in action against Leeds Rhinos last weekend. The Tigers could be dark horses for the Challenge Cup this year. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire.

Rhinos had to choose last year between proper preparation for the Challenge Cup semi-final and final and league points. Coach Richard Agar fielded below-strength teams in a midweek match before both those ties, as well as in the game immediately following the final and Rhinos lost all three.

At least two of those, Catalans Dragons at home and Warrington Wolves away, were games Leeds would have fancied winning at full-strength and a couple of extra victories – and defeats for two rivals – would have made a difference to the league table. But the gamble paid off and winning the Cup made 2020 a successful season for Leeds.

In 2020, when two wins would secure a place at Wembley, the Cup was clearly their best chance of silverware. This year, after a disrupted pre-season and injury-hit start to the campaign, they might have a more realistic shot at the Grand Final, providing they can remain in touch with the top-six until key players return, so defeat on Saturday would be disappointing, but not necessarily disastrous.

If a team outside the usual suspects – Leeds, Wigan Warriors, Hull, Warrington or Saints (who haven’t lifted the Cup since 2008) – are to win it this year, Castleford Tigers could be the dark horse.

Since reaching the final in 2014, Tigers have been eliminated by Hull, Wigan, Hull, St Helens and Hull. They will fancy their chances of winning at Hull KR in two days’ time and there’s a belief in the camp this is their year to achieve ‘something special’.

If it came to it, Tigers, like Leeds last year, could certainly prioritise the Challenge Cup and getting to Wembley would be a success.

Only two of the current 12 Super League clubs have not reached a major (Wembley or Old Trafford) final in the summer era, Leigh Centurions and Wakefield Trinity.

A Wembley appearance, particularly if fans are allowed in, would be fantastic for either of those clubs, but they probably both regard avoiding relegation as their number one priority.

Catalans Dragons have looked good at the start of the year and they present a big Challenge for Trinity on Saturday afternoon, though at least they don’t have to travel to France.

Featherstone Rovers’ home tie against Hull is one of the more intriguing fixtures this weekend.

Hull are in good form, but Rovers haven’t lost since the 2019 Championship Grand Final and it will be a good opportunity to measure where they are against a top Super League club, the sort of challenge they are hoping for every week next year.

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