Talking RL: My heart says a Wigan win. My head says...

It'd be ironic, wouldn't it, if the first Challenge Cup Final to go to golden point if it's a draw, ends up as a draw?

Thursday, 24th August 2017, 11:39 am
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 1:12 pm
Sean O'Loughlin and Shaun Wane at the Challenge Cup media launch

But the bookmakers, the shrewdest of observers, can’t pick a favourite between Wigan and Hull FC.

Until last week, I thought Wigan were the under-dogs.

I thought they’d need to punch above their weight to beat a Hull FC side which was trampling over all-comers, and had beaten top-two Leeds 
and Castleford in reaching Wembley.

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My prediction changed by 10pm on Friday.

Not only were Hull picked apart by Huddersfield, but Wigan produced a performance I’ve not seen in ages.

They’ve been great in defence, at times, and they’ve dug deep, at times.

But against Salford, it all seemed to come together. They were water-tight in defence – they have only leaked two tries in as many games – smart with the ball and sharp in attack.

Keep that up, dial up the intensity a notch, get to grips with Hull FC’s big men, and they’ll give themselves every chance.

They have the big-game players – O’Loughlin, Tomkins, Leuluai, Farrell, Bateman – a lethal left-edge, forwards who got the better of NRL champions Cronulla, and a coach who knows a thing or two about big matches.

It won’t be easy. Hull FC are a very-capable side.

And across the squads, there are some intriguing-looking duels.

Which is why this is shaping to be a great Challenge Cup Final.

My heart wants Wigan to win, obviously. My head is beginning to lean the same way. But it’s going to be tight.

This week is Wembley week. It should all about the Challenge Cup, right?

But after results last weekend, I couldn’t resist commenting on the Super League table.

Because the battle for a top-four spot has suddenly become much more interesting.

Wigan and St Helens are now level on points; fourth-placed Wakefield a further point ahead. And in the four-game home-straight, they all play each other.

Some say Wigan can’t afford to lose a game, but it may depend who they lose to; a defeat to Castleford, for example, may not be as costly as, say, losing to St Helens or Wakefield.

Saints and Wakey both face Hull FC in their run-ins, while St Helens face the Tigers as well – not ‘gimmes’ by any stretch.

And while part of me agrees with those who say next Friday’s trip to Saints has come at the wrong time for Wigan, the other part of me thinks it’s better than Wakefield away.

Because if a derby doesn’t rouse the players from their post-Wembley hangovers, nothing will.

Ah, Wembley.

Nothing like a trip to the stadium to bring misty-eyed memories flooding back.

Everyone has their own highlights. Many from when they were ‘hard-wired’ as youngsters.

Me? Brett Kenny was my first sporting hero because of ‘85 - I was sad to read, recently, of his cancer battle.

There are other flashpoints, and not all the obvious ones; Henderson Gill’s smile after his try in ‘85, Henry Paul’s ‘basketball spin’ against Leeds a decade later, Joe Lydon’s break for Ellery Hanley’s try in ‘88, Hanley’s swerving run the year later when they nilled St Helens... I could go on.

Later, as a reporter covering the games, Adrian Lam’s masterful performance in ‘02 confirmed, in my eyes, his stature as one of the club’s best overseas players. And I’d argue Joel Tomkins’ try in ‘11 was up there with Martin Offiah’s from 1994.

Rugby league shouldn’t live in the past but neither should it ignore it (I hate it when events before Super League are dismissed; football falls into the same trap with the Premier League).

And that’s why the Challenge Cup is so special.

It gives us all a good excuse to be nostalgic. A perfect excuse to remember our own highlights.

And for the players involved, it’s a chance for them to write their own names into history, and into fans’ minds for years to come.

Tony Clubb had a career-threatening back injury and a kidney removed. In between, he lost his dad to cancer.

To say I have a lot of respect for the way he has battled back would be an under-statement.

Castleford sure celebrated winning the league leaders shield.

And why not? It was the first time they’d finished top of the table in 91 years.

I was surprised they played ‘We are the Champions’ over the loud-speaker (I later found out there was a Freddie Mercury-tribute) but I hope their celebrations set the bar for all future table-toppers.

Finishing in the No.1 spot is a big achievement. It isn’t the biggest – even though we could all argue it should be – but it’s worthy of a celebration.

And the more excuses for a party, the better, right?

The top-table press conference at a rugby league media event is usually a sombre affair.

A few questions, a few short, often-cagey answers (which is why journalists favour the one-on-one interviews which follow).

Good on Hull FC coach Lee Radford, then, for lightening the mood at Monday’s meeting.

Asked if they have sorted out their Wembley suits, he quipped: “Yep, we’ve been to Asda, George.”

Good luck to the schoolboy players who are taking part in the Champion School finals in London this weekend.

My son was fortunate enough to play in the Wembley curtain-raiser last year – the Year Seven decider is played before the Challenge Cup Final, and St Peter’s will again be involved.

The Orrell school has two other age-groups playing the day before at Richmond, and St John Fisher also has a team involved. Well done to all involved.

Sam Tomkins knows how he plans to spend the night after the Challenge Cup Final – staying up to watch Conor McGregor fight Floyd Matweather.

UFC superstar McGregor and boxing great 
Mayweather have fed the hype and hysteria with 
acid-tongue exchanges in the build-up.

Tomkins joked rugby league should follow suit, and have captains trash-talking before a big game.

I dare suggest if the Challenge Cup was on pay-per-view – and players took a cut of the sales – they might be tempted to give it a try!