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Wembley awaits semi-final victors

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George Riley George Riley | 09:27 UK time, Friday, 5 August 2011

Challenge Cup semi-final weekend is often one of the most dramatic weekends of the rugby league season. Four sides, all 80 minutes from Wembley, and for some sides who make it this far, it is the last chance to grab something special from the season.

Two derbies, one Yorkshire, one Lancashire, and four sets of fans desperate for that special final.
For me it is always a date that brings back a painful memory of personal calamity, on the day of one of the most thrilling matches in the Cup's history.

St Helens and Wigan will be live on BBC Two and 5 Live Sports Extra

St Helens and Wigan will be live on BBC Two and 5 Live Sports Extra Photo: Getty

It was the 2003 semi final in Huddersfield - I'd sat through 75 minutes of a pulsating arm-wrestle between Leeds and St Helens before Darren Smith dived in to give Saints a six-point lead with a kick to come to finally kill off the Rhinos' Wembley charge.

By the time Paul Sculthorpe had set up the kicking tee to attempt to put his side eight clear I anticipated it would be game over with just a couple of minutes left, and so sprinted off to beat the M62 traffic to an evening engagement.

I heard Scully miss the kick on my walk to the car park, followed by the roar of 20 year-old Danny McGuire's sensational injury-time try and Kevin Sinfield's touchline conversion to tie the game.

I then listened to McGuire clinching a dramatic extra-time victory on the radio driving home shaking my head, and vowed never to leave a sporting event early again.

That is the kind of unrivalled drama that this sport can produce when you least expect it.

Leeds lost the final that year and have lost two more since as they bid to end what is now a 12-year wait to lift the sport's most famous silverware. Castleford will provide a huge test on Sunday.

Saturday's first semi is a blockbusting Wigan v St Helens derby in Warrington, live on BBC television and on radio 5 live Sports Extra.

I'm heading up to commentate with Stuart Pyke and Sean Long and am expecting a classic. Talking to Ian Millward last week at Salford, he reckons this should be the final.

Having coached both teams, Millward told me Saints may sneak it against the Super League champions. These Wigan-Saints game are always bruisers.

Warriors coach Michael Maguire calls it a "special" fixture and he's spot on. Wigan's defence this season has been sensational and Saints are going to have to find something a bit special to break them down.

They will be buoyed though by Warrington's purple patch in the quarter final which saw the Cup holders breach that watertight Wigan backline to the tune of 22 points in little over quarter of an hour, before being ultimately undone by a ruthless second-half riposte.

Prior to Warrington's back-to-back Challenge Cup successes, this competition was owned by St Helens, who scored a hat-trick of wins between 2006 and 2008.

Saints are desperate for their trophy back. When Wigan last won the Cup in 2002 they did so at Murrayfield by beating St Helens in the final.

Nine years is a long wait to win it again for a team like Wigan and Maguire's side may feel that the toughest obstacle this year is the one immediately ahead in the semi.

A few eyebrows were raised by the RFL's choice of venues of these semis, with two big derbies being played at the relatively small stadia of Warrington's Halliwell Jones and Doncaster's Keepmoat Stadium.

Both stadiums should be pretty much packed out but I felt the game's governing body could have been bolder.

However they will feel vindicated after consulting all four clubs about the choice of venue with tickets still available on Friday morning.

At 8am on Friday Leeds still had 1000 of their 7000 allocation remaining.

There is a feeling that the Doncaster venue has put fans off with several disruptions to the main route in, while cynics suggest Rhinos fans may be counting their chickens and saving up for the final.

Wigan and St Helens were both happy with their choice of venue. St Helens haven't yet beaten Wigan in three games this season and will need to stifle the effervescent Sam Tomkins to keep Wigan at bay but Saints themselves are running hot.

With the rugby-union bound Kyle Eastmond back in favour and the enigmatic Leon Pryce back from injury, Saints have racked up 186 points in their last four games, including 54 in their 10-try demolition of Hull KR in the quarters.

If Saints attack continues in the mood it is in against Wigan's miserly defence it should be an absolute

Castleford's hopes will be greatly boosted if their star man returns from Australia in the right physical and mental shape to play.

Rangi Chase has been sublime this season, the Tigers' playmaker has, in my opinion, been the player of the season, with a tip of the hat too to Michael Monaghan.

The halfback has had a round-the-world trip for a court hearing in Australia this week. If he is jaded, or worst still unavailable, I fear the Tigers' hopes will be massively hit.

Tigers winger and part-time male model Nick Youngquest calls this the biggest game he will have played in. It will be for most of the Tigers team. Can they beat Leeds and reach Wembley in coach Terry Matterson's final season? Absolutely, but they will need Chase.

It is in the halfbacks that Leeds have calls to make too. Rob Burrow has found himself on the bench in his testimonial year under Brian McDermott.

He excelled in a rare start last week at Salford, and was the Rhinos man of the match off the bench in their quarter final win at Hull FC.

McDermott favours playing Kevin Sinfield in the halves with Danny McGuire, leaving Burrow on the bench. I feel Leeds are at their best when all three players are on the pitch.

All four of these clubs are desperate to win this competition which should provide the platform for a memorable semi-final weekend.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's going to be Wigan v Leeds at Wmebley. I hope Cas can do it but I don't think they will. And Wigan to beat Leeds in a classic final.

  • Comment number 2.

    For Leeds to win, Burrow needs to start.
    He really is the heart of the engine that seems to make the Rhino's tick perfectly. With him, they are excellent, without, they look like something is just not right.
    Saints just dont seem to have that little bit extra needed this year to turn Wigan over.
    Wigan V Leeds is the final I think we will end up with.
    Two of the best "playing" teams in Super League.

  • Comment number 3.

    Saints to win. They have put some impressive performances together under Simmons and with their star players coming back, then i feel they're just hitting their best at the right time. I also think Cas are hungrier than the Rhino's and with Rangi Chase they have a man who can be the star man. Saints V Cas, 2 historically classy teams who would produce a great final.

  • Comment number 4.

    Come what may, I will be going with the Don's annual exclusive package tour to Wemberlee - as a Cas fan, I hope we make it. It will be an achievement just to get there and I won't be surrounding be a load of miserable Loiners having been annihilated for the umpteenth time again in the final. Just can't see beyond the winners of Saturday's semi.

    (Sorry Don, Will, Daz, Uncle Ian, Keith, Ken, Boy Band etc...)

  • Comment number 5.

    Burrow was great against Hull when he came on at Hooker. I think Leeds will just win it but I'd love a Cas to get there for the good of the game. Wigan/Saints hard to call, it will really be a great game. By the way George, there isn't such thing as injury time in Rugby League.

  • Comment number 6.

    we should be too strong for cas.Better forwards and a lot faster in the backs now ben jones bishop and kallum watkins are back.God help us if Cas do manage to win,
    Wembley anhilation springs to mind.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think it's interesting how we (Saints) are being written off ahead of this semi. That is largely based upon our last showing against Wigan, which was poor. But we were leading until the 79th minute of the Good Friday game - having lost a halfback and fullback to injury - and we drew the first match. However, with rumours flying about Kyle Eastmond suffering a hamstring injury and not able to play, and Jamie Foster suffering a knee injury and possibly not able to play, and the known possibility that James Graham's disc injury could mean he is unable to play, the omens are looking normal for this season but not good for this match. Also, while it is great to have Leon Pryce back again (assuming he isn't injured after having to play 80 minutes last week due to having no interchanges in the second half), he is still far from match fit and will no doubt be targeted by Wigan. This game has probably arrived just a couple of weeks too early for us (although with our injuries this season probably no time was a good time!). However, if we turn up and play to the game plan, not give away silly penalties or dropped ball, then we still have as much chance of beating Wigan as we had at Cardiff and the DW. Assuming we don't lose anymore players during the match!

    As for the other semi, I think it would be great to see Cas win. I don't know how true the Rangi rumour is but if it is true and he isn't playing then that will be a major blow to their chances of a win simply because he is a very tricky player to deal with. But on their day, even with the injuries they have been enduring, Cas are perfectly capable of overturning Leeds. And they came very close to beating Wigan, if I remember rightly, in one of their contests. Should Cas win on Sunday it can't be assumed that the final will be a walkover for the other side. Certainly not for Saints. We beat them in the final minute of the match at the Stobart. Because Cas play a similar style of rugby to Saints, both those teams at the top of their games would make for a wonderful spectacle, as indeed would Leeds and Saints (although personally I wouldn't want to see Leeds at another final anytime soon!).

    But whichever teams win over the weekend, I hope both games are competitive, highly skilled, entertaining and exciting matches; that the fans are vocal and supportive and that both matches turn out to be excellent adverts for our game.

    Come on you Saints!


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