Every week, leading Rugby League columnist Garry Schofield writes for League Express about the big talking points in the game. As a special treat to celebrate Challenge Cup semi-final weekend, here is the Hall of Fame inductee’s preview ahead of the two key matches.
The Challenge Cup semi-final weekend is always one of the highlights of the Rugby League calendar, and I’m licking my lips at the prospect of this year’s games.
Unfortunately, the Cup has lost some of its prestige in the summer era and there has been a big decline in semi-final crowds, which often used to top 20,000 until 1999.
But now we have semi-finals played at lower-division stadia in front of ever-declining crowds.
Nevertheless, the Challenge Cup remains a wonderful competition, and Wembley is still the ground that all players want to play at, above all others.
Hull, as they are often reminded, have never won at Wembley, and will be desperate to turn that around. Their match with Wigan gives both sides an opportunity to gain the upper hand over the other ahead of the closing stages of the league campaign.
Wakefield, naturally, will be as desperate as Hull to get into the final, while Warrington have a great recent history in the competition and have a coach in Tony Smith who has always treated the competition with complete respect.
We will see in action Super League’s current top three in Wigan, Hull and Warrington along with Wakefield, the success story of the season. Trinity have been magnificently led by Chris Chester, the man who I believe should win the coach-of-the-year award.
And there’s enough quality in all four teams to ensure that we should be treated to two great games.
So this is how I see the two games panning out.
Wigan v Hull
We all know where this will be won and lost and that’s in the halves, because Wigan and Hull are so well matched throughout all of the other positions.
I can’t separate the two packs of forwards. Hull are bigger up front and will have a bit more presence, but in terms of toughness and mobility, there’s not much in it. I’d be amazed if either side were to win the battle of the forwards by a significant margin, although Gareth Ellis might have something to say about that!
Likewise, there’s nothing in it with the outside backs. I like both sets of players. The four wingers are quality finishers and the centres are well matched in defence and attack. At fullback, Sam Tomkins and Jamie Shaul will be a great contest, because both like to come into the line as a second stand-off, which is a great way for the fullback to attack. Shaul will be keen to show that he should be in the England side at the end of the season ahead of the more established Tomkins.
So it all comes down to the halves – and I’ve been critical of both sides here throughout the season. George Williams and Matty Smith will need to be at their creative best, and they will be helped by the presence of Sean O’Loughlin in the side after his recent ban. But even so Wigan could only score one try against St Helens on Friday. Wigan aren’t a great attacking side – look at their points’ difference as proof of that. They are going to have to produce some things which aren’t coming naturally at the moment.
In the absence of Carlos Tuimavave, I thought that young Jordan Abdull played well alongside Marc Sneyd in the recent derby win over Hull Kingston Rovers and I’d keep him in the side ahead of Leon Pryce. He’s more vocal and creative than Sneyd. Hull won’t win this by kicking for field position, so they have to be good enough to come up with something that will trouble the Warriors. I think they can do this. They do at least look a much more fluent attacking unit than Wigan right now.
Overall, if this game is played in the right way it will be a belter. It’s hard to come up with a confident tip and it could even go all the way to extra time. I hope the pressure doesn’t get to Hull, because the Wigan players are more used to big matches like this. Likewise Shaun Wane has coached in numerous showpiece matches compared to Lee Radford. But Hull have continued to prove people wrong this year and I think they’ll edge this one.
Tip: Hull by 6
Warrington v Wakefield
This game is intriguing because of the events of 12 months ago when Chris Chester’s Hull Kingston Rovers were rated by most pundits, including myself, as not having a chance of turning over Warrington. And how wrong we were!
Chris has since taken over at Wakefield, having been fired by Rovers, and is doing a blinding job. And comparing the Super League table to last year’s, you’d have to conclude that Trinity are a better side than Hull KR were last year. So can he repeat his magic?
Unfortunately, the problem is that Warrington are miles better than their frustrating, inconsistent selves from a year ago. What many overlooked a year ago was that the Wolves’ form suggested they were extremely beatable. Pundits like me just didn’t believe Rovers were good enough to do it.
But I can’t see Warrington being so abject on the big stage again. Their spine of Stefan Ratchford, Daryl Clark, Kurt Gidley and Chris Sandow are all playing well and they look to be a much more balanced side than they were a year ago. In Gidley and Sandow, they have the best halfback partnership in the competition and Wakefield will be fully aware of that. Gidley is the key for Warrington getting back to Wembley, and he is the man that Wakey must stop.
The Wolves pack is both aggressive and mobile. Chris Hill has developed into a great player, and Ben Currie isn’t far behind him. Ashton Sims can be ill-disciplined, but he’s still a good player on his day. All in all, the Trinity six will have to produce something special to get over the Warrington forwards.
I suspect we’ll also see a different attitude from the Wolves. In last year’s semi-final they scored an early try and celebrated for about three minutes, which was ridiculous. They won’t do that this time. You’ll see a far more professional and focused performance from them.
So, as you may have gathered, Wakefield are going to have to produce something very special in order to get to Wembley. Chester will play the same hand as a year ago, because he knows the pressure is on the Wolves again. They will look to capitalise on mistakes and gain as much control of the match as they can, especially early on.
Jacob Miller and Liam Finn have proven to be a very good halfback pairing this year, and although it’s not as good as Wire’s they are capable of getting Wakey over the line if Warrington are below par.
I like Wakefield’s forwards too, but I’d go with the Wolves’ mobility to give them the edge up front. In the outside backs, Tom Johnstone is a big loss, and you’d have to conclude that Warrington will edge it here too.
Having said all that, Wakefield will not be intimidated by Warrington and are capable of turning over their more illustrious opponents. But I believe that Smith is too good a coach to lose consecutive semi-finals to a mid-table team.
Tip: Warrington by 8.
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