It’s the Challenge Cup – but not as we know it.
Coronavirus has wreaked as much havoc with our flagship knockout competition as it has with our league set-up.
The Cup had to be restructured following Toronto’s withdrawal from Super League and the inability of the five surviving clubs from outside the top-flight to continue their involvement, through no fault of their own.
But the good news is that we have two attractive semi-finals at St Helens this Saturday – I really hope the increasing number of local lockdowns don’t interfere with the schedule – and a Wembley showdown a fortnight after that to look forward to.
It was important to play the competition, and not just to give the BBC something to show, but so generate some much-needed TV revenue.
The Cup has a terrific history, stretching back to 1896-97, and it’s interesting to think that Batley lifted the trophy in the competition’s first two seasons.
The final was first played at Wembley in 1928-29, when it was won by a more predictable name in Wigan, and while the attendance for the showpiece might have dipped in recent years, and there has been plenty of discussion over why that is, I can assure you the Cup is very important to the players.
Being involved in a Wembley final is a career highlight, although I’m still disappointed to have finished on the losing side with Hull back in 1984-85.
Now we have the prospect of Warrington, Salford, Leeds and Wigan, who edged us out 35 years ago, battling for a place in the big match down in the capital.
I think the romantics among us would love to see Salford get to Wembley for the first time since 1968-69, when the side coached by Griff Jenkins and skippered by David Watkins went down 11-6 to a Castleford team containing the likes of Alan Hardisty, Dennis Hartley and Mal Reilly and coached by Rocky Turner.
Most people enjoyed Salford’s run to last year’s Grand Final, and it would be great for the club to make the Challenge Cup final.
It would also highlight the coaching ability of Ian Watson, who had to carry out something of a rebuild of his squad over the close-season.
That has impacted on their Super League results, but Salford remain an entertaining team to watch, and on their day, a pretty dangerous one.
They certainly won’t be overawed by the prospect of playing Warrington, and that 28-22 win against Hull (more of the Black and Whites later) in Thursday’s Super League meeting will have buoyed them.
Warrington can’t afford to step off the gas, but I can’t see them doing that, and they will be desperate to get back to Wembley to keep hold of the Cup.
Friday’s 30-16 Super League victory over Catalans was their ninth in a row, seven of them coming since the resumption, and the way the table-topping Wolves are playing, they have to be in with a strong shout of doing the double for the first tine since Leeds managed it in 2015.
The powers-that-be at Warrington have made no bones about their desire not just be involved in, but win, the matches that really matter, and last season’s Challenge Cup final success against St Helens has helped shed that ‘always the bridesmaid’ tag.
Just like Ian Watson at Salford, Steve Price had promoted an attractive, and clearly successful, brand of rugby.
And while he has some obvious stand-outs – and haven’t Blake Austin and Matty Ashton been catching the eye of late? – there is also some depth to the squad, which bodes well.
As a former Leeds player, I want to see Richard Agar’s men seal a first final appearance in five years, but while my heart says Rhinos, my head says Wigan.
I think this semi-final could well boil down to a clash of the packs, and I reckon the Warriors will have too much strength and quality.
With the likes of Hastings, Hardaker and Gildart at Wigan and Handley, Gale and the in-form Richie Myler at Leeds, neither side lacks creativity or a cutting edge.
That’s why the forwards could hold the key to the outcome, because whichever pack gets on top will provide the platform for the backs to do their stuff.