So much for my Challenge Cup semi-final predictions.
I thought Wigan’s pack power would give them the edge against Leeds, and the strength of Warrington’s squad would prove too much for Salford.
How wrong I was!
We’ve got plenty to look forward to on Saturday week, because both sides like to play fluent, attractive Rugby League, and the final should be a belter.
As a former Leeds player, I’m delighted to see them back at Wembley for the first time in five years – they beat Hull KR to lift the trophy for the 13th time in 2015 – and as for Salford, what a great story, and well done to Ian Watson!
It’s a first final appearance since 1969, when they were narrowly defeated by Castleford, and the Red Devils will be out to win the Challenge Cup for only the second time, their previous success coming way back in 1938, against Barrow.
It comes on the back of last year’s Grand Final appearance, of course, and it’s just a shame Salford can’t take an army of fans down to the capital for what would be a fantastic day out.
But the supporters are still going to have the pleasure of seeing their side involved in the final of the game’s greatest knockout competition, and hopefully it will inspire a new generation of young Rugby League fans in an area where football has been so dominant.
Ian has proved himself not just as a great coach, but also as a fine man-manager.
He has dealt with the departure of key players and reshaped his squad with some really astute signings.
With the likes of Kevin Brown and Dan Sarginson, he signed players that other clubs didn’t seem too interested in and he has made them key members of a very efficient team, refreshing their careers at the same time.
The Salford faithful won’t thank me for saying this, but I’ve got some advice for Adam Pearson over at Hull.
If you want to take the club forward, forget looking at the NRL, go and get Ian Watson and give him a five-year deal, because he’s proven himself a master when it comes to creating a successful side on a sensible budget, and what’s more, his teams entertain into the bargain.
The Hull fans like to see their team put on a show, and it hasn’t been happening much in recent times.
There’s no point hanging around, because it’s obvious other clubs will be looking towards the AJ Bell Stadium and taking lose note of what’s been happening there.
As for Leeds, what a difference a year makes.
In 2019, the Rhinos were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Bradford and were far too close to the relegation zone for comfort, finishing just four places and the same number of points above London Broncos.
It’s been far better this tine around, and just like Ian Watson at Salford, Richard Agar has created an enjoyable environment for the players at Headingley.
While Luke Gale stood out for the way he conducted the orchestra, I thought Leeds produced a super team performance against Wigan, and I’d say for 75 per cent of the semi-final, every player was a nine or ten out of ten.
Wigan might have scored a couple of tries, but they were merely consolation scores, and Adrian Lam might well have had a poor night’s sleep on Saturday.
I’d say that was the softest performance I’ve seen from a Wigan side in 15 years or so. It lacked purpose and it lacked creativity.
Leeds were smarter, and they looked like they had prepared for the wet conditions far better than their opponents.
Young players shining bright
It was great to see a number of coaches give young players a chance in the latest round of Super League matches.
Leeds, Warrington and Wigan all rung the changes for their games against Catalans, Salford and St Helens respectively.
It’s just a shame that it took fixture congestion to force the issue, because we should be seeing these lads on a more regular basis.
Young players are the future of our game… literally.
Given the financial problems caused by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that homegrown players form the nucleus of a squad.
And, given the unusual nature of this season, with the threat of relegation taken away, there’s never been a better time to blood them – and persevere with them.
I get that it’s not easy for coaches, because they are under ever more pressure to produce results, and there is less patience from either directors or supporters these days.
And the situation isn’t helped by the lack of a meaningful second-team competition.
Back in the day, ‘A’ teams were a mixture of youngsters making their way and more experienced players who were either coming back from injury or out of favour and so had a point to prove.
Often, the starting side for the first-team fixture on the Sunday would be named in midweek and the two substitutes would be chosen after the ‘A’ team match, which often took place on the Thursday night. That meant there was every incentive to perform.
The new expanded Reserve Championship was an early casualty of coronavirus, and we need to get it back up and running as soon as possible, because it’s so important when it comes to learning the game.
Not every young player will come into the first team and make an instant impression.
But that doesn’t mean they should be discarded, because it can take time to get used to playing senior rugby against experienced players, particularly without the benefit of a competitive, meaningful second-string competition.
I well remember my own debut for Hull against Warrington back in the eighties.
It was a painful experience, both physically and mentally.
I was up against Ronnie Duane, the Great Britain international, in the centres, and I was left black and blue and reflecting on just how physical and competitive Rugby League is.
The next week, I came up against Widnes and Eric Hughes, and exactly the same thing happened.
They were hard lessons, but it brought home to me just what level I needed to get to, and I was lucky because Arthur Bunting, the Hull coach, stuck with me, and made sure I got the support I needed at that early stage of my career.
Well done, Jammer
Back in 2003, when he made his Super League debut, James Graham was a young prospect coming through the ranks at St Helens.
Seventeen years on, he has announced his international retirement.
Jammer knows his own body, so you have to think it’s the right call and you can only say well done on a great record for Great Britain and England.
The front row is one area in which we have strength in depth, so hopefully we won’t feel the loss of such a consistent player too keenly.
Saints fans will be hoping it’s not the end of his time in red and white, because he’s been great since returning from the NRL.
It’s not just his own performances, but the influence he has on the training ground, in the dressing room before and after matches, and out on the pitch.
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