Rhinos hold the edge in potential Cup classic.
Can Leeds Rhinos defeat underdogs Castleford Tigers to finally end their Challenge Cup hoodoo at Wembley tomorrow?
It’s one of the great, modern-day anomalies of British sport that a side which has won the Super League Grand Final six times in 10 years, has managed to ‘fluff its lines’ in six successive Challenge Cup Finals since last tasting success in the showpiece event at the old Wembley in 1999.
Indeed, take out that victory against the London Broncos, and you would have to go back to 1978 for the Rhinos penultimate success in the famous old trophy – a truly derisory return for the ‘Manchester United of rugby league.’
If the star-studded Rhinos are to finally lay their Challenge Cup ghost to rest, they are unlikely to have it all their own way against their gritty small town neighbours in what is the first all-Yorkshire Challenge Cup Final at Wembley since Castleford sprang a mild upset of similar proportions against a then-mighty Hull Kingston Rovers.
Castleford actually boast an enviable record in Challenge Cup Finals, having suffered their only reverse in five Wembley showpieces back in 1992 against a prime Wigan side which was in the midst of winning the trophy for eight successive seasons.
Historically, Castleford have always drawn motivation from the ‘small town vs big city’ billing which invariably accompanies a derby against Leeds and, though they’ve enjoyed their fair share of success over the years, it’s worth noting that they’ve yet to beat their illustrious rivals in a Final of any description from three previous meetings.
Not surprisingly, Castleford coach Daryl Powell – a Challenge Cup Final winner and loser as a Leeds player – has been keen to deflect all the pressure onto Leeds in the build-up by highlighting their recent Challenge Cup woes, saying “six losing Finals is a big weight around your neck.”
Powell is right of course but – in what can only be interpreted as a confident riposte – Rhinos coach Brian McDermott appeared to wrong-foot his opposite number by taking the unprecedented step of naming his Cup Final line-up at a press-conference as early as Monday!
Looking beyond the mind-games, are we bookmakers right to be pricing up Leeds as the 1/3 favourites, whilst going as big as 19/10 on Castleford, considering Cas held the Rhinos to a draw at Headingley as recently as last month?
All things considered, those odds appear just about right.
Both sides were impressive semi-final winners but, whilst Leeds will line-up at Wembley with a virtual full-strength side chockfull of internationals and big-names, Cas are sweating on the fitness of influential prop Craig Huby who dislocated an elbow in his side’s victory over Widnes.
With workaholic back-rower Grant Millington already ruled out, Huby’s absence would be a huge blow. But, even so, there are enough grizzled big men in the Tigers pack to remain competitive against a Jamie Peacock-inspired Leeds front six, which should set the platform for a mouth-watering duel between respective hookers Daryl Clarke and Rob Burrow.
In the three-quarters, the Rhinos undoubtedly hold the edge on paper, but Castleford’s defensively-strong centre partnership of Michael Shenton and Jake Webster is better equipped than most to nullify the firepower of Kallum Watkins, Joel Moon et al, whilst they boast a match-winner of their own in the ‘Tank on the Flank’, Justin Carney.
But, in all probability, this Final – as many invariably are – will be determined by which half-back partnership is able to exude most influence, and that’s where the Rhinos hold a definite edge.
Though Castleford’s functional axis of Marc Sneyd-Liam Finn has a lot going for it – not least, a smart short-kicking game – there is a huge big-game experience deficit compared with opposite numbers Kevin Sinfield and Danny Maguire, and the all-international Rhinos pairing could hold the key to this game.
Playmakers – particularly goal-kicking ones – dominate the recent roll of honour for the Lance Todd Trophy (Man of the Match) and Sinfield looks the leading candidate to win the award for a second time, while the brilliant Daryl Clarke is put forward as a viable alternative should it prove Castleford’s day.
The match kicks off at 3.00pm on Saturday at Wembley Stadium.