With this weekend’s Challenge Cup Final looming, the showpiece event continues to attract millions of viewers on the BBC and the largest attendance of any game in the Rugby League season. This year’s event sees the holders, Hull FC, whom beat eight-time winners, Warrington Wolves, in a 12-10 thriller in 2016, do battle with Wigan Warriors whose last victory at Wembley came in 2013 against, ironically, their opponents this weekend.
The 2017 Challenge Cup is the 116th staging of the competition, stretching from Round One in late January to the climactic final in late August. The two teams involved this year have had contrasting fortunes in the league; the Black-and-Whites are third in the table, three points clear of their nearest challengers in fourth, Wakefield Trinity, having been in the top four all season, whilst Wigan have, so far, had a disappointing year. Although only one point behind Trinity, the Warriors are sixth and have been mid-table for the majority of the season. With multiple and consistent injuries, it is perhaps remarkable that the Lancashire club find themselves in the mix for both the Challenge Cup trophy and a visit to Old Trafford.
Both teams have had to play Super League opposition on their way to the final, but Hull’s run has definitely been more difficult. Catalans Dragons, Castleford Tigers, and Leeds Rhinos have all been swept aside in rather domineering fashion by the Airlie Birds with the Tigers having the smallest margin of defeat by eight. Contrastingly, the Warriors had an easy tie with Swinton Lions in the sixth round, but then two fascinating battles against Warrington Wolves – whom they beat by a drop-goal – and Salford Red Devils – whom they beat by 13.
Their Super League form coming into this Wembley tie has also been different. FC were tonked 46-18 by Huddersfield Giants last weekend – even booed off the pitch by the Hull Faithful – whilst Wigan hammered Salford Red Devils 42-6. Although Hull boss, Lee Radford, rested several key men such as Albert Kelly, it cannot have done his team’s morale any good to be beaten in every department by the lowest-ranked team in the Super 8s. After all, success breeds success.
The teams constitute an interesting and fascinating match-up. For Hull, Pontefract-born Gareth Ellis will make his final Wembley appearance before retiring at the end of the season and he will be striving to ensure he goes out on a high. For Wigan, their prodigal son, Sam Tomkins, will want to put years of injuries behind him by winning, as he did in his final season for the Warriors before he went Down Under, a Challenge Cup medal with his hometown club. Tomkins himself does not care about how pretty a possible victory could be, but that all that matters is that he gets his hands on the trophy once more.
“I don’t care what the game is like. I don’t care what the fans think, if it’s dire, if there’s no tries scored. All we want is to pick that trophy up,” Sam Tomkins, Wigan Warriors’ fullback.
The battle tomorrow will definitely be one dominated by the forwards. For Wigan, it is quite unbelievable that Tony Clubb was back playing just 58 days after having a kidney removed. Even so, Clubb, whom started his career off at London Broncos, has played a pivotal part in Wigan’s journey to Wembley, featuring in the entertaining 27-14 victory over Salford Red Devils in the July semi-final.
“I’ve gone from a massive low to a massive high. It was a tough time but I’ve got through it now,” Tony Clubb, Wigan prop forward.
Clubb will likely be joined in the forward pack by enforcers, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Taulima Tautai, and the youngster Ryan Sutton. Tautai has had an impressive season whilst Frank-Paul and Sutton will need to up their game drastically to cope with the might of the Hull FC pack.
Liam Watts and Scott Taylor have both been touted as possible candidates for an England jersey for the World Cup in November and there is no real surprise; both men lead from the front, get over the gain line and give momentum to their team for the likes of Albert Kelly and Jamie Shaul to exploit. Although Watts’ disciplinary record has let him down this season – sent off three times in 2017 so far – he has been an integral part of FC’s route to the final.
But it would be foolish not to include Gareth Ellis, Mark Minichiello and Sika Manu as potential game-winners for the Airlie Birds. It is no coincidence that FC look better led and more “pumped up” when Ellis is on the field whilst ball-handling backrower, Minichiello, has a dynamic running game that belies his size. Not only that, but Manu himself is a force of a human, weighing in at a massive 110kg, it takes at least three men to bring him down whenever he takes the ball forwards.
The Black-and-Whites don’t merely rely on these forwards though to get them going; even their wingers are powerhouses. Mahe Fonua and Fetuli Talanoa are immensely strong and their kick-returns are amongst the best in the league. Their defensive prowess is also not to be frowned at; although Fonua’s ability under the high ball has often been questioned. Yet, both wingers are also superb finishers; time and time again, Fonua is seen taking three men over the line with him to score with a powerful scorch to the line, whilst Talanoa has often been seen gracefully diving for the corner in seemingly impossible situations, only to be given the green light for a superb try.
Wigan just simply have to kick – and kick well – to both wingers. Make it so neither Fonua nor Talanoa has time to get up a head of steam from a kick-return. Because, on the back of quick play-the-balls and messy rucks, Albert Kelly and Jamie Shaul are livewires who can find gaps through retreating defences with ease, whilst hooker, Danny Houghton thrives on attacking tired defences – exhausted from having to haul FC’s big men down continuously.
Then we get to the battle of the halves. Marc Sneyd – who often goes missing in big games e.g. when Castleford played Leeds at Wembley in the 2014 Challenge Cup Final, he was hauled off with just 20 minutes gone by coach Daryl Powell – versus the illustrious George Williams. Williams has the speed of mind, the sidestep and skill to trick any defence, whilst Sneyd is a calculated and thoughtful half-back whose kicking game is one of the best in the business. Sneyd absolutely destroyed Leeds’ Tom Briscoe when the two sides met in the semi-final with his towering bombs to the corner; and it is perhaps likely that Sneyd could well take the aerial route against the Warriors’ winger, Tom Davies.
Both Williams and Sneyd do have a tendency to “hide” when the going gets tough, but Williams’ half-back partner, Tommy Leuluai, always makes his presence felt whether with big hits or powerful bursts. Albert Kelly, meanwhile, is a potent threat from anywhere on the field; one missed tackle and he’s gone. The half-back battle really is a fascinating one and really, it depends on which pair are able to control the game through their forward packs. Here, FC’s pack just edges it.
The talking is over
With all pundits and rugby league fans predicting a result one way or another, all that remains is for the two teams to play their hearts out when the Challenge Cup final kicks off at 3pm, Saturday.