The 2014 Tetley’s Challenge Cup Final will be the first time that Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos have squared-up in a decider and the prospect of such a contest is enough to get any sports fan’s juices flowing.
Less than a fortnight before the big day, there could hardly be less to choose between the two teams. 23 games into the Super League campaign, both have identical records, having chalked up 15 wins, two draws and lost the other six. The Rhinos hold third place by virtue of only a 16-point margin in the points difference column, an average of less than one-point better per match.
In their two meetings in that competition, Leeds won on their travels to the Mend-A-Hose Jungle in May, coming from behind to win 22-14, before a late Grant Millington try earned the Tigers a 24-all draw in the return fixture at Headingley last month.
That match was notorious for the first sending off in the career of England and Leeds skipper Kevin Sinfield, for his head butt on Cas fullback Luke Dorn. Sinfield was back from a two-match ban to oversee his team’s 24-16 success against Warrington in their semi-final, while Dorn was again outstanding in the Tigers’ 28-6 defeat of Widnes that saw them through to Wembley for the first time since their 1992 defeat to Wigan.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the match-ups, however, will be off the field. Tigers coach Daryl Powell and his assistant Ryan Sheridan both played key roles as half-backs when the Rhinos last lifted the Challenge Cup, which came in the last final played at the old Wembley in April 1999.
The pair of them grew up in Castleford before making their names at Sheffield Eagles and then linking up again under the late Graham Murray at Headingley. Powell himself went on to take the coaching reins at the club, leading them in both 2001 and 2002 before a sideways move to become Director of Rugby when Tony Smith was brought in to replace him.
On the other side of the fence, Brian McDermott has become the most successful coach in the history of the Leeds club in terms of statistics, winning two Grand Finals, a World Club Challenge and taking the team to Wembley in both 2011 and 2012, together with another losing appearance in a World Club Challenge.
McDermott, whose first win as a Head Coach when with the old Harlequins club was against Castleford, doesn’t really much left to prove. He has coached a team to win two titles from fifth place in the table, but whether he is inclined to play it down or not, he would dearly love to add a Challenge Cup win to his burgeoning CV.
His is a team whose nucleus has remained unchanged for around a decade. Sinfield, Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Ryan Bailey, Carl Ablett, these are all names that trip off the tongue of league fans when they think of the Rhinos, because they have formed the hardest of cores around which success has been tasted in sizeable chunks.
It is an ageing side but a one that bears comparison with most, if not any, of those in the sport’s history. However, in six attempts since that 1999 win, Leeds have been pipped at the post. Half of those were when the decider was played away from Wembley, but the other three have been in the capital, when the Rhinos have been well beaten each time.
During that same 15-year period the Tigers have suffered both relegation from and a return to Super League, the humiliation of a defeat to arch local rivals Featherstone - then coached by Powell - in the 2012 Challenge Cup, followed by a wonderful renaissance since the same man took the helm in May of last year.
If the Tigers surprised many with their great start to this campaign, then those same people have had all season to get used to the fact that Castleford have been unquestionably the most improved team in Super League this time.
The way that Powell has harnessed talent such as Daryl Clark and Marc Sneyd, made astute signings like Andy Lynch, Luke Dorn, Jake Webster and Justin Carney, and has improved others such as Kirk Dixon and Jamie Ellis has been little short of a revelation.
Their inventive and combative style of play has been too much for most opponents to handle and collectively they are a team riding on the crest of a wave, so you would be hard pressed to argue that their name isn’t already on the trophy. They are likely to be without both prop Craig Huby after his dislocated elbow and Aussie forward Grant Millington, but they remain more than capable of winning it.
For Leeds, this is a well-trodden path and it is unlikely that they will be revisiting the videos of their hat-trick of defeats between 2010-2012 in the build-up to this year’s renewal. Other than crediting the winners with being too good for them on the day, it remains a mystery why a team that has won six Grand Finals and beaten the best from the NRL has simply failed to perform in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Perhaps it has been fear of failure. Perhaps they just haven’t been in good enough form at the right time.
Time waits for no man. While this Tigers team is already showing signs of breaking up and moving on in 2015, they might just have come together at propitious moment for the club. Or, perhaps haunted by the ghosts of Wembleys-past, the Rhinos will finally find a way to lift the game’s traditionally most lauded piece of silverware.
Peacock versus Lynch, Burrow head-to-head with Clark, Dorn up against Hardaker, Carney v Hall, Shenton taking on Watkins, Sneyd and McGuire, Sinfield’s experience against the exuberance of Ellis, the ‘haves’ against the ‘have nots’, as they say down Wheldon Road. Some mouthwatering match-ups. It will be great fun to watch it unfold.