Welcome to the Wigan Rugby Blog Challenge Cup Final preview. We have previewed the game below, as well as looking at key match ups, key stats and detailing both team’s progression to the final, including highlights from each round. We hope you enjoy reading this and enjoy the build-up to the best Rugby League weekend of the year.
A look at Hull FC
Hull have been very impressive this year and have perhaps had their good season overshadowed somewhat by the form of Castleford. Hull FC have quietly gone about their business and are looking to mount a challenge for both the cup and Super League this season, hoping to learn from last years experience. The biggest issue for Lee Radford in recent weeks is deciding on whether to stick or twist; do they go for the cup or go for the league and cup. It’s a feat that’s difficult to achieve but one that can be done with meticulous planning. In recent weeks Radford has tried to rest players to varying success, last week, resting the like of Kelly and Shaul resulted in a bit of a mauling from Huddersfield. Key players are fit and key players are in form, however their biggest issue is simply to performing to their ability on the day.
I think Hull are favourites, that not just me as a Wigan fan trying to downplay Wigan’s chances, I genuinely believe that on their day, if Hull play to their potential like the way they have done in the past two rounds of the Challenge Cup then it will be very hard for Wigan to stop them. This season, the addition of Albert Kelly has made such a big difference to them as an attacking threat. After the first clash between the two teams this season at the DW Stadium, I commented in my post match review that Kelly was the best player to have played against Wigan so far this season, he produced a true all round performance. I don’t think anyone to date has matched that performance yet and Wigan will need to come up with some type of game plan to keep him quiet to give themselves a decent chance on Saturday.
Hull’s other halfback, Marc Sneyd, has come in for his fair bit of criticism this season notably from Garry Schofield who on Radio Yorkshire described Sneyd as:
“(he) doesn’t complement a number six. I think I know a little bit about halfbacks. All he does is kick. That’s all he does. “The ideal halfback partnership takes the pressure off each other. One takes control for a period and then the other says ‘hold on, have a bit of a spell here and let me dictate from there’.
“You are not going to bring that right balance with Sneyd because he doesn’t bring anything but a kicking game. He doesn’t organise, he doesn’t create, he doesn’t support, he doesn’t tackle, he doesn’t pass and when he does it’s rubbish. Whoever is his agent must be supping champagne until 2019.”
The following game, Marc Sneyd scored a hat trick…
In a way, I am sure many people can sympathise with Schofield’s comments, if not agree with them completely. Sneyd offers a fantastic kicking game and perhaps the other elements of his game are lacking compared to his kicking ability. However, Hull play to Sneyd’s strengths and I think Sneyd’s biggest strength is that he knows his limitations. He knows that he doesn’t have the running game of an Albert Kelly or George Williams but he does have the ability to change a game with a kick. His performance against Leeds in the semi-final set Hull on their way to a very impressive win. If the 2017 final is played in the conditions of the 2013 final (hopefully not!) then I would put money on Marc Sneyd winning the Lance Todd Trophy in the same way Matty Smith did back in 2013. The ability to control a game through defensive and attacking kicks in difficult conditions can sometimes, be a game breaker.
The one area of the field that Hull will feel they have an advantage over Wigan going into the final, is the forwards. The backs are perhaps evenly matched which the likes of Kelly and Williams, Shaul and Tomkins all capable of a moment of magic. However, in order to get the opportunity to produce that magic, both sets of backs need their forwards to lay a platform – something that Hull have been doing consistently well and something that Wigan have been consistently struggling to do.
The go forward ability of Bowden, Taylor coupled with the backrow class of Minichello, Manu and Ellis is pretty impressive. They have size in their side that can’t be matched by any other side in Super League. If Hull win on Saturday, it will be down to their pack laying the platform. Wigan will have to find a way to deal with a much bigger pack, something like they did against the likes of Fiffita and Gallen in the Cronulla game,
All in all, Hull FC are very a good side, how they deal with the favourites tag and being cup holders has the ability to inspire them or be a burden; time will tell.
A look at Wigan
Where do we start with Wigan – brilliant last week against Salford but which Wigan turns up on Saturday is anyone’s guess. A season plagued by injuries and the worst losing streak for over 100 years, yet they are world champions, 80 minutes away from winning the Challenge Cup and one point off a Super League semi-final place. That probably says a lot about the English competition but it also says a hell of a lot about this Wigan side, committed, undeterred and champions.
Last week, they had to beat Salford to ensure they kept in touch with the top four in Super League but perhaps more so, they needed to win well. They needed a smooth, fast attacking performance and a brutal defensive performance – they produced exactly that. Probably the best attacking display of the season in which there seemed to be a real combination between Williams, Leuluai and the ever-improving Sam Tomkins. The later has been improving ever game that he has been back in the side, he produced a great performance in the semi-final against Salford in which we saw a return of his famous tackle bursting breaks added in with his clever dummy half running and cute kicking game. His game has developed and matured since his return from the NRL, injuries have meant that he has had to adapt his game and I think that Wigan are now benefiting more and more from having their marquee signing back.
One area that Wigan have struggled at times this season, is in their forwards. It’s clear that they are missing Ben Flower but one player shouldn’t effect a sides go forward as much as it looks to have done in Wigan’s case. Last week saw Frank-Paul Nuuausala produce perhaps his best performance for Wigan in the 13 months that he has been at the club. Big Frank-Paul has had his critics over the season, my favourite being at the Huddersfield game when a fan shouted, “Wrecking Ball? More like cotton ball!”. Looking at FPN’s stats, he currently averages a gain of 7.44 metres for drive he takes, he is currently Wigan’s 10th best player in that department. Compare that to last season, when he was averaging over 8 metres per game and was Wigan’s 3rd best average meter maker. FNP’s performance last week suggests that we may start to see the 2016 FNP again – a timely return to form it could be. If any inspiration is needed, look to fellow Kiwi, Jeff Lima who won the Lance Todd Trophy in 2011 after his two tries at Wembley against Leeds. Wigan’s other forwards have an equally big task on their hands, the likes of Ryan Sutton, Tony Clubb and Taulima Tautai need to match Hull’s forwards, metre for metre to ensure George Williams and co. have the best possible chance to influence the game.
Wigan’s side looks to pick itself at the moment, although Tom Davies and Joel Tomkins being declared fit and available suggests that Shaun Wane may look to change the side for the final. For the Cronulla game, Wane dropped Isa in favour of going for a bigger bench with Joel Tomkins picked. For this game however, despite the size of Hull, I can’t see Wane dropping Isa, he has been impressively going about his work in the back row, leading the Wigan tackling stats with an impressive 736 tackles so far; only Danny Houghton of Hull has made more tackles out of the players in Saturday’s squads. If, Michael McIlroum had been doing 80 minutes and Sam Powell hadn’t been as impressive in McIlroum’s absence then there would be an argument for going for Tomkins instead of Powell, but Powell is fully deserving of his place in the 17.
I do think that Wane will make a change on the wing, with Tom Davies coming back in the side for leading try scorer, Liam Marshall. On the face of it, that probably looks like a strange decision to those of any other persuasion than cherry and white. However, Tom Davies is a right winger who makes incredible meters (averages 8.68m, second best for Wigan) and is defensively sound – he is also capable of scoring some great tries, as he showed at Headingley recently. The decision to drop Marshall, despite his attacking prowess is that Marshall is a left winger and looks to have struggled defensively on the right, Warrington targeted him in Super League and as a result, he lost his place in the side. Davies is likely to face Talanoa and considering the defensive job Davies did on New Zealand international, Manu Vatuvei in the semi-final – I would suggest that’s the persuasive factor for Wane.
Finally, George Williams – an undoubted talent who has perhaps had a quieter second part of the season that he did in the first. Next season, he becomes Wigan’s second marquee signing citing in a recent interview that these are the type of games that he re-signed to be a part of. Big players turn up on big occasions, see Brett Kenny, Shaun Edwards, Martin Offiah, Ellery Henley and Kris Radlinksi. George needs to find the happy medium of having his influence on a game but not feeling the pressure to do so, sometimes, when things aren’t going Wigan’s way he can start to try to change a game himself, seemingly moving away from a game plan. If Williams can exploit tiring defenders in the later stages on Wembley’s big pitch, he could well add his name to the list above.
Thoughts on the game
I put this as a game that seven times out of ten, Hull win. However, Wigan have a chance, of course they do, it’s a final and Wigan are still a very good side despite what the L column in the Super League table may suggest. Piece together the Cronulla win and their cup form, then we have one hell of a game to look forward to. Wigan need to put in a Cronulla style performance to ensure that Saturday is one of those three out of ten occasions.
I have Hull has favourites, but I cant back anyone but Wigan … I am going for:
Wigan 16 – 12 Hull
Lance Todd Trophy Winner: John Bateman
Whatever, the result, let’s hope for a game more like 1985 than 2013.
It’s Challenge Cup Final week, with one of the best weekends in British sport to look forward to. The Cup itself remains as important as ever to every Rugby League club up and down the country, however the final does seem to be losing its appeal to fans to attend. This weekend, with the expiry of the initial 10-year Club Wembley tickets, sees tickets in the second tier at Wembley go on sale for a Challenge Cup Final for the first time. Why is that an issue? Well in the past nine finals at Wembley, the tickets that had been pre-purchased through the Club Wembley scheme counted towards the attendance on the day, therefore inflating the number attending the game compared to the actual figure. Look back at most Wembley finals in the ‘arch era’ and you will see rows of red, empty seats in the second tier. The good thing then this year, is that there’s a good chance those seats will now be filled but there is likely to be massive voids in the third tier and I am guessing, one of the lowest, if not the lowest, attended cup final since the return to Wembley.
I may be wrong and Wembley could be packed to the rafters and the attendance will be a non-issue. However, rugby league press is reporting, early this week that Wigan have only sold 8,000 tickets for the final, with Hull estimating they will sell 20,000. So that’s 28,000 club tickets, plus however many neutrals and corporate attendees – I am definitely struggling to get those figures anywhere near the 90,000 capacity of the National Stadium! One thing that hasn’t helped the Wigan sales this year is the closure of London Euston, meaning that any Wigan fans wanting to get to Wembley by train face a trip to Crewe and around the midlands or a trip to London via Sheffield – all do able of course, but when Rugby League is a sport that needs to make the most of its showpiece event, live on the BBC, having an obstacle to attendance like the train issue, isn’t great.
All in all, whatever the attendance is, it is – the debate of moving the final away from Wembley will no doubt raise its annoying, unwanted head in the post-match fallout. But for all of us going, let’s make the most of it (we don’t know how many more Wembley finals we might have left if the RFL get their way … )
The Road to the Final
Wigan and Hull, having finished in the Super League top eight the previous season, entered this years Challenge Cup at the 6th Round stage. Hull met the Catalan Dragons at the KC Stadium whereas Wigan were drawn away at Swinton Lions. The Hull v Catalan game promised so much when the draw was made, the Dragons, still buoyed with the usual early season optimism and that added boost that the cup can bring when it comes around, they even released a limited edition Challenge Cup jersey! However, that optimism faded during the week of the game with coach at the time, Laurent Frayssinous, naming a 19 man squad with only 17 players in it and only fielding seven players from the Super League game in which Catalan had beaten Hull FC at the KC Stadium earlier in the year. Hull FC ran out 62 – 0 winners on the day.
Hull FC 62 – 0 Catalan
Wigan on the other hand still struggling with injuries themselves overcame Swinton Lions 42-12. Swinton claimed their place in Round 6 after their impressive victory over Super League side Huddersfield Giants, their hopes of another giant killing were raised slightly when just before kick off, George Williams pulled out of the Wigan side, meaning that Wigan at a half back pairing of Joel Tomkins and Nick Gregson! Wigan overcame a stubborn Swinton side and secured their place in the quarterfinal.
Swinton 12 – 42 Wigan
https://tv.wiganwarriors.com/video?videoID=MV81bnNmZ3A3NQ%3D%3D (Subscription Required)
Hull FC were given the unenviable task of taking on highflying, press praising, cup favourites – Castleford Tigers. Castleford entered the quarterfinals by comprehensively beating St Helens, 53-10 in the previous round and they were going to take some beating. Well, Hull FC did exactly that with a spectacular display in a fantastic game of rugby. Hull eventually winning the game 32-24. The game plan set up by Lee Radford and executed by his players was excellent, with Hull FC showing their cup and Super League credentials for all to see.
Hull FC 32 – 24 Castleford Tigers
Wigan meanwhile, were drawn away to fellow strugglers, Warrington in what was to be another repeat of last year’s Grand Final. Wigan welcomed back Sam Tomkins and John Bateman from longterm injuries for the game and in what was a tense ending, it was to be Sam Tomkins’ drop goal that separated the teams. Warrington did have their opportunity to win the game with a couple of minutes to go, when young winger, Liam Marshall (still don’t know why he was taking kick offs!) kicked the ball out on the full from the restart, presenting Stefan Racthford with the opportunity to win the game, with a penalty shot at goal from the centre spot. That kick missed but Liam Marshall seemingly caught the ball and took it dead (that is a decision that still baffles me) meaning that Warrington were to receive the ball back very a drop out; what followed was a tense and nervy final minute culminating in youngster, Declan Patton missing with a drop goal attempt, securing Wigan’s passage to the semifinal.
Warrington 26 – 27 Wigan
Hull were drawn against Leeds, to be played at a sell out Keepmoat Stadium. On paper, a tight contest and a game that was certainly tight for the first forty minutes. Hull’s tactic of peppering Tom Briscoe with high balls paid dividends and Leeds failed to adapt to that challenge. In the second half, when Leeds were trying to get themselves back in the game by playing more expansive rugby, Hull capitalised and ran away with the game, winning in the end 43-24.
Hull FC 43 – 24 Leeds
Wigan’s semi-final came against highflying Salford at the Helliwell-Jones Stadium. A Salford side that had seemingly put all their eggs in the Challenge Cup basket with league form having slipped before the semi-final and having signed NRL legend, Manu Vatuvei and Tyrone McCarthy in time to make their debuts in this game. What followed was a classic, Wigan taking an early lead only to be pulled back by Salford, a strange sin binning for Sam Tomkins and another Geliing “moment” resulting in Wigan playing 60 minutes of the game with 12 men. Wigan prevailed in the end and book their place at Wembley with a 27-14 win.
Wigan 27 – 14 Salford