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Challenge Cup Final: Wolves & Rhinos in Wembley wonderland

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George Riley George Riley | 15:48 UK time, Thursday, 23 August 2012

I can't think of any week in the rugby league year that excites me more than the days building up to the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

Whisper it quietly around Old Trafford in October, but it is the magic of Wembley that truly gets the juices flowing for the sport's elite players, fans and coaching staff.

This is the one week of the year we are not a minority sport. It is the one week of the year fans of all sports, the national, and international media, all want a piece of rugby league.

It is the one opportunity for our moderately-paid players to step out of posh London hotels in crisp, fitted suits, to be greeted by thousands of adoring fans at our national stadium.

Rugby League Challenge Cup final 2011

Leeds have lost their last five Challenge Cup finals, including last year's against Wigan. Photo: Getty

The deafening roar of the crowd, the waves of emotion as your steely focus lowers only to seek out your family in the stands, the kaleidoscope of colour as every club's supporters descend on Wembley, and the vein-bursting pride triggered by marching out on to that famous turf amidst the rousing chorus of Abide With Me.

It is the day that every single rugby league player dreams of from the moment he first drives into a tackle as a schoolboy. It is a volatile cocktail of emotions that I'm constantly trying to do justice to in describing to friends and colleagues just how big a deal this is.

Challenge Cup final day is rugby league's chance to shine, every player's shot at becoming a legend, and everyone associated with the sport is desperate to be a part of it.

Players of Leeds and Warrington have been thinking about Saturday every day since winning their respective semi-finals. Speaking to Lee Briers the day after Warrington walloped Huddersfield in their semi the old magician was already plotting for the final.

I was there at the Rhinos' Kirkstall training base a couple of days later as the players sorted through a mountain of shoe boxes in conditioner Jason Davidson's office - their Cup final boots had already been delivered!

The match-up itself could not be more intriguing either, a repeat of the 2010 final won convincingly by Warrington who are creating a modern Wembley dynasty.

The Wolves can seal a third Cup win in four years and in doing so condemn Leeds to a third successive Cup final defeat, something that has not happened to any side since Hull lost three on the spin over a century ago.

It is a real anomaly that in dominating Super League with five Grand Final wins in the last eight years, Leeds have lost on each of their last five Challenge Cup final appearances since last winning it in 1999. The Rhinos are in danger of becoming to the Challenge Cup Final what St Helens have been to the Grand Final, modern-day bridesmaids.

And it is going to take a monumental effort for Brian McDermott's side to finally make it all the way to the altar. The Wolves go into the game as favourites, far superior over the league season to their rivals, but wary of the Rhinos' big-game mentality that saw Leeds knock out Warrington en route to a historic Grand Final win from fifth place last year.

I can't see Tony Smith's side wounding Leeds as badly as they did two years ago, while the Rhinos will have taken a lot of pride from their efforts in defeat to Wigan in last year's final. In terms of form, you can't read too much into it.

Warrington suffered a bizarre hammering at London Broncos last week, while I watched a disjointed Leeds display in the south of France, the Rhinos recovering too late in the game to deny the Dragons.

There are fascinating match-ups all over the park. I always love watching Briers dictate play on the big stage, while Richie Myler will have a huge point to prove for Warrington after being dropped from the 2010 final squad.

With Danny McGuire's Challenge Cup curse again denying him an elusive Wembley appearance, teenage half-back Stevie Ward is Leeds' secret weapon.

Rated at Headingley as the next Kevin Sinfield, the 18-year-old was in the crowd for Leeds' defeats in the last two finals and set himself two targets at the start of the year: to break into the Rhinos first team and to pass his A-levels.

Combining revision with training, Ward showed brains and brawn in picking up an A in PE and B's in English Language and Literature last week, before turning his attentions to pinning a Cup winners' medal to his parents' proud noticeboard.

Literary scholar Ward will know well that life's battles don't always go to the stronger and faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins, is the man who thinks he can.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great blog George and I also can't wait for Wembley on Saturday. This will be my tenth consecutive Challenge Cup Final and my tenth visit to the new Wembley. Having seen Leeds four times before (including in my first cup fianl (Leeds V Bradford at Cardiff) and not winning the trophy I so badly want Leeds ti win on Saturday and to sing 'marching on Together' at the top of my voice. Oh and my favourite all time Challenge Cup Final memory out of my previous nine cup finals is the reaction by Lee Briers when he won the Lance Todd trophy in the final a few yeras back. I say bring on Saturday and a Leeds victory.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good article, George, although I'm going to be a Wolf for the day on Saturday! Nothing would please me more than Leeds losing three finals on the trot. It would give me some kind of vicarious pleasure! ha. Aside from my ongoing bitterness at my team being beaten numerous times by Leeds at Grand Finals, I think the Challenge Cup final is a wonderful celebration of rugby league. Unfortunately the RFL have neglected it for years, presumably the financial input of Sky into the competition persuading them not to promote it as much as it should be, and I think the competition as a whole has suffered greatly as a result. I hope more tickets are sold than has been suggested - only 'over 60,000' is being reported, which would leave lots of empty seats in addition to the Club Wembley circle of indifference. I hope too that it is a great match. I will be watching it in the RedVee Cafe at Langtree Park as funds don't stretch this year to a trip to London when my team is not involved.

  • Comment number 3.

    What's all this Leeds/Warrington stuff? - the big game of the day is Howard of Effingham Year 7 against Castleford in the Carnegie Champions Schools Competition.

    Make sure you all get there early for a great game of rugby from these young men - kickoff is at Wembley Stadium at 12:30

  • Comment number 4.

    Great blog George. I've got my tickets and can't wait till Saturday!

    The best thing about the Challenge Cup has to be the way fans of all clubs all over the world seem to be represented there each with their own reasons for supporting one of the two teams (though in my experience as a Southerner and certainly speaking to a lot of neutral fans on the day it does tend to usually be a Yorkshire V Lancashire divide).

    The weather could be a spoling factor since there are thunderstorms predicted and as a neutral I want an open fast game but I'm also keen to see what difference Burrows makes since he missed the last time I saw these two play in 2010.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is a fantastic weekend in prospect. I have followed rugby league from the Eddie Waring days of Grandstand in black and white at my Granddad and Grandma's in Golborne (near Warrington). My Granddad talked of Billy Boston and the cherry and whites with a tear in his eye. Me and my wife lived in NZ for a couple of years and loved the Aussie 'foooteee' coverage. I am torn between wanting to get to Wembley and being at home watching it on TV with Jonathan Davies' great insights and funny frustration when they don't see 'man over, man over' and for me....get Ray French back! The Olympic spirit has been here for a long time, waiting to be acknowledged.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great blog - and about time too ! What a great event th CC still is - though still needs more TLC from the RL, profile this week is still far too low. Like the comment the schools game - a great part of the day. Wish Chris Hoy or Mo was presenting the cup...or Prince Harry!

    Everyone - enjoy the day and let's hold off with putting our sport down for one weekend. Our boys deserve this day.

    Proud to be a 13

  • Comment number 7.

    Never been to a Rugby League game and my first experience will be the Challenge Cup. I'm a Union man typically, so looking forward to a big game living up to its heights!

  • Comment number 8.

    Can't wait for tomorrow! 3 generations going (me, dad, nephew). Come on Rhinos!

  • Comment number 9.

    Oh and the news re the multie statue is excellent !

  • Comment number 10.

    It's the best day out and I love the atmosphere. Last year was the first time at new Wembley - and I don't mind saying, I cried when I got inside and looked at the stadium (a few litres of Red Bull, Irn-Bru & Vodka might have had something to do with it as well). Will be watching on telly (it's my wedding aniversary this weekend as well, so I'm only allowed to go when Wigan get there now) and am looking forward to seeing little Jack - google Joining Jack if you don't know who I mean -I've got my shirt.

  • Comment number 11.

    Good stuff George - it's always a bit hard to explain to southerners how important the Challenge Cup is to League fans. I'm a Wire man going tomorrow with my Rhino supporting brother in law so it's going to be a long journey home for one of us.....

  • Comment number 12.

    It is my first major Rugby League final due to my being in the armed forces till recently. My son and I have been looking forward to this for years and we will enjoy whatever the result. Come on the Rhinos. Tip for MOM Stevie Ward, but big game from Ryan Bailey, the better pack will win it.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    May i be the party-pooper - i couldnt disagree more with the words of the first few paragraphs, almost could have been written by the RFL media dept

    The Grand final under the lights at Old Trafford is a fantastic occasion - Our family thats 6 of us have already got our tickets for that - did it almost as soon as they became available - only 1 - my cousin is going tomorrow and that puts this one well into what it is ie a competition and occasion thats lost its way and its position within the calendar of the sport itself never mind sport in the country as a whole

    Utter rubbish and patronising too to say that we arent a minority sport for this week - of course we are - How much have the papers been publicising the game this week ?- exactly- hardly anything, what time does the bbc tv coverage start ?2pm according to the website- precious little build up there then, stop trying to kid people George

    So this time im giving it a miss- ive been to all the finals at the new wembley and plenty before - simply because it has no "magic" for me at the moment and you all know deep down im not the only one minded of that

    I'll be watching the game on tv - hope its a cracker and the weather which doesnt look too clever doesnt ruin the spectacle and who's going to win - on form its got to be Wire

  • Comment number 15.

    If Stevie Ward can't even get an A* in PE, then I think Warrington haven't got much to worry about from him ;)

  • Comment number 16.

    Great piece. Whilst the Grand Final may be the climax to the league campaign Wembley is still the day that stirs the most emotion. Life seems to have been breathed back into the Cup recently, especially with results like Featherstone beating Castleford and running Wigan so close and a classic semi final between Leeds and Wigan. Can't wait.

  • Comment number 17.

    Wembley is the be all and end all for us RL lovers. Nothing beats the Challenge Cup final. I'll be a Wire for the day as my beloved Wigan have decided to win the Grand Final instead this year. As for cabbagesandbrussels, there's nothing left for us "working class" types to nick as your own kids destroyed everything in the last set of yearly riots in the capital.

  • Comment number 18.

    I've been looking forward to this day for 13 months, since we lost to Wigan in the Quarter-finals last year. The game is not being shown live here (Malaysia) so I'll listen to the BBC, and then watch the delayed satellite transmission immediately after

  • Comment number 19.

    The Challenge Cup final is an historic event in Rugby League important to any sport lover. This years final involves many players who have come through the youth systems of both clubs. Exciting skilful players who will be putting their bodys on the line in the sports show piece event. On the day of the final the Guardian have led with an article about a dog loving Australian. Shameful. I'm reporting the Guardian to the RSPSA

    jocuri online

  • Comment number 20.

    #stroudp - I too think it's great that Howard of Effingham are in the schools finals at Wembley! I actually hope they win as Cas have had loads of wins in the past but it will be a big ask for them given Cas's history in junior level rugby league: they just seem to keep on producing for some reason. Good luck to them though and I hope the young players have a great time there no matter what the result.

    #Badger1 - I hope you enjoy your introduction to rugby league live. There's no better way to start than by attending a Challenge Cup final. It's a real festival of rugby!

  • Comment number 21.

    Well, first of all I want to say well done to the BBC for giving the Challenge Cup very good coverage. Half an hour introduction, the excellent Clare Balding in the company of some of our best pundits, articulate, knowledgeable commentary and NO RED BUTTON!! Fabulous. Please, please keep that up BBC! Wembley is such a tremendous occasion that it deserves the best possible coverage.

    I enjoyed the match - the torrential rain certainly spiced things up a bit! - and the result was what I had wanted anyway. Warrington were by far the better team and thoroughly deserved their win.

    And a very big well done to the lads from Howard of Effingham school! What an achievement for them! Fantastic result.


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