Guest writer James Oddy takes a look at the key areas in which Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final between Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos will be won and lost..
The coaches: Brian McDermott (Leeds) vs Daryl Powell (Castleford)
It’s interesting to think how different the Rugby League landscape would be had Powell been retained by Leeds before their record breaking 2004 season. Despite that, he has gone on to have an excellent coaching career, and the way he has turned around a club which looked to have lost its identity has been a joy to behold. His brand of tough, yet expressive rugby differs slightly from McDermott’s more prosaic approach to picking up victories. Despite that, McDermott has led Leeds to some unlikely, yet thrilling league success since returning from developing his skills with London.
The fullbacks: Zak Hardaker (Leeds) vs Luke Dorn (Castleford)
The two fullbacks – one the bright young thing of English rugby, the other an Australian coming towards the back end of his career – actually have lots in common. Both are excellent broken field runners who can put a defence immediately on the back foot when returning kicks. Both also have played stand-off and their intelligence and passing ability allows them to come into the line and take the pressure off of the more traditional pivots, launching attacks for the excellent three quarter lines both teams possess. Hardaker is the better defender, but Dorns experience more than makes up for it.
The halves: Kevin Sinfield (Leeds) vs Marc Sneyd (Castleford)
Sneyd perfectly sums up Castleford this season; a player with promise who had struggled to gain much game time to impress at his former club. He has been in superb form in all aspects of stand-off play after a largely unheralded loan move. Inventive with ball in hand and deadly with boot to ball, it’s a shame for Castleford that he will be off to Hull FC next year. It will be a shame for Leeds when Sinfield, now 33, decides to call time on his career, having been far and away Leeds’ most successful captain in their history. Doubts remain whether stand-off is his ideal role, yet his mental strength and pinpoint tactical and goal kicking make him as vital as ever to Leeds’s chances.
The hookers: Paul Aiton (Leeds) vs Daryl Clark (Castleford)
It will be interesting to see how McDermott and Powell shuffle their decks when it comes to the hooking role. Rob Burrow and Adam Milner will have plenty of say out of dummy-half as well, but it could be game-deciding how the outstanding Clark is handled by the Paupa New Guniea captain. Clark seems to be a front runner for the Man of Steel come the end of the campaign, and his first appearance in a major final could be the moment he solidifies his position as England’s top hooker. Aiton does not generate the same type of excitement, but he is tough, solid defensively and more inventive than he is often credited for.
The props: Jamie Peacock (Leeds) vs Andy Lynch (Castleford)
It is a real shame that Craig Huby, a Castleford player who has had every conceivable high and low with the club, will probably miss out with an injury (Editor’s Note: Since the time of writing, Huby has been named in Castleford’s 19-man squad). Seeing him come up against the formidable Jamie Peacock would not have been for the fainthearted! Peacock doesn’t do flashy things; he just takes the ball up and makes tackles. It’s only after the game when you examine his stats and see the volume of carries, meters and successful tackles that you realise how vital he is for the Leeds team as a whole. Lynch, also a veteran prop, has often been an unsung hero and his international career has been blighted by injuries. Yet he has the ability to produce the big metres and telling tackles to match Peacock. Rugby League is almost always decided in the forward battles, and neither of these will take a backwards step.