RL Challenge Cup final preview: Underdogs Warrington CAN beat St Helens
Warrington coach Steve Price had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he described Saturday’s opponents St Helens as the biggest favourites in Challenge Cup final history.
But the comment was not as outrageous as it appeared.
Of course, no club will be bigger underdogs than Sheffield Eagles when they toppled the mighty Wigan in 1998, but the bare facts ahead of today’s Wembley showdown make uncomfortable reading for Wolves fans.
While Saints are 16 points clear at the top of Super League with the League Leaders’ Shield safely secured for the second year in a row, Warrington go into the final on the back of five successive league defeats which has undermined both confidence and their hopes of another trip to Old Trafford.
St Helens have also beaten their near neighbours in all three league meetings in 2019 with an aggregate score of 89-34, and Price’s Wolves have a number of injury concerns over key players.
It would be a crying shame if the first meeting of these famous old clubs in a major final turned out to be one-sided but there are reasons to be optimistic for Warrington.
Saints were even bigger favourites going into the semi-finals but they made hard work of part-timers Halifax.
And the Wolves know all about the perils of favouritism after being on the receiving end against unfancied Catalans Dragons at Wembley 12 months ago.
Much will depend on how the Wolves’ walking wounded get through the captain’s run at the stadium on Friday afternoon.
It seems the club have been playing down the extent of Blake Austin’s ankle injury but they will be sorely tempted to take a risk on their influential playmaker, who was joint top of the Man of Steel leaderboard until losing his ever-present record. Full-back Stefan Ratchford, winger Josh Charnley and second rower Jack Hughes look more certain to take their places in the team but it is a far from a settled preparation.
Saints, on the other hand, are virtually at full strength and refreshed after coach Justin Holbrook was able to rotate his big-game players over the last six weeks.
They have the depth to offset the loss of outstanding forward Matty Lees and, although full-back Lachlan Coote may be short of match fitness, having sat out the last month with a knee problem, that is only a minor irritation.
They have no shortage of match-winners, with stand-off Jonny Lomax playing some of the most creative rugby of his career, and can boast a three-quarter line brimming with pace and incision.
The neutrals could be in for a treat if Saints can find some open space for Welsh flier Regan Grace to strut his stuff and Wembley looks ready-made for a trademark acrobatic finish from Tom Makinson.
As ever, though, it is up front where most matters will be decided and that is an area where the teams look more evenly matched, particularly in the front row.
James Roby is the only surviving member of St Helens’ team of 2008 and his hooking duel with England rival Daryl Clark could go a long way towards determining the destination of the famous trophy.
CUP FINAL IN NUMBERS
The Challenge Cup is one of the longest-running competitions in world sport, having been first contested in 1896-97, shortly after the breakaway from the Rugby Football Union.
Ahead of Saturday’s Wembley final between St Helens and Warrington, we take a look at the famous tournament in numbers.
1 – This will be the first meeting between these two clubs in a major final. The last time they met in a final was in 1982, when St Helens won 16-0 in the Lancashire Cup at Wigan’s Central Park.
3 – Hooker James Roby is the only St Helens player with previous Challenge Cup final experience, having been in the team that won the trophy three times in a row from 2006-08.
8 – Warrington have won eight of their 18 Challenge Cup finals and are hoping to avoid a third successive defeat.
10 – Of the last 10 meetings in Super League, Saints have won seven, Warrington just three.
14 – Warrington have 14 survivors from last year’s 20-14 defeat by Catalans Dragons. Half-backs Kevin Brown and Tyrone Roberts and forward George King are the only ones missing.
16 – The number of times the teams have met in the Challenge Cup, including five semi-finals, but of course their 17th will be the first in the final.
21 – Only Wigan and Leeds have appeared in more Challenge Cup finals than St Helens, who made the first of 21 appearances in the inaugural final in 1897. They have won 12 and lost nine.
1895 – The Challenge Cup final will be followed by the final of the inaugural 1895 Cup, named to mark the year of the game’s founding, between two former Super League clubs, Widnes and Sheffield Eagles.