Challenge Cup Final: Wolves & Rhinos in Wembley wonderland
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.
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.