Winning is everything in sport.
The reason athletes train, work and push themselves so hard is to be the best, to fulfil their potential and to reap the rewards that success brings.
Another big component of sport however is defeat and the contrast in emotions between the Hull FC and Warrington players at full-time at Wembley Stadium on Saturday told the whole story.
For Hull it was the club’s first ever Challenge Cup win at Wembley and banished the memories of painful defeats in 2008 and 2013. It was also a just reward for the outstanding improvement the side has made this season and possibly the first part of a lucrative treble.
For Warrington however the players collapsed on the pitch dejected, despondent and forlorn. This was no ordinary defeat and the Wolves were, and still are, hurting.
In the most nail-biting Challenge Cup final for more than a decade, Warrington will feel they did more than enough to win the trophy. They kept Hull scoreless for an hour with some gruelling defending and were leading 10-6 with seven minutes left on the clock. Even in the dying minutes had it not been for a last-ditch, heroic tackle from Danny Houghton on Ben Currie the colours on the ribbons of the trophy would be primrose and blue.
Warrington’s biggest challenge now is bouncing back. But amidst the disappointment and cup final heartache, how do the Wolves pick themselves up?
At the start of this year new England and Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said it took him a month to get over the Broncos’ agonising 17-16 NRL Grand Final defeat to North Queensland last season.
But Warrington don’t have a month. They don’t have a pre-season or a whole new campaign to readjust and start afresh.
Sitting second in the table and just one point behind leaders Hull, they are still well placed to compete for the League Leaders’ Shield and Old Trafford glory next month.
Their four remaining Super 8s fixtures are daunting however with a difficult trip to Catalans this Saturday followed by a local derby against Widnes before top-of-the-table clashes against Wigan and Hull.
The Wolves’ top-four spot is assured but they will be eager not to drop-off during the business end of the season and to push for an all important home tie in the play-offs by finishing first or second.
A key positive for Warrington is that head coach Tony Smith has been in this situation before. In 2005 he saw his Leeds side suffer a demoralising 25-24 Challenge Cup final defeat to -you guessed it – Hull at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
That defeat did not deter the Rhinos that season however who finished second in the league, beat St Helens to book their Grand Final place before losing 15-6 to rivals Bradford at Old Trafford.
Winning the Grand Final after suffering Challenge Cup final misery is not unheard of however with Leeds bouncing back to lift the Super League crown in both 2011 and 2012.
Moreover, Castleford would have claimed the League Leaders’ Shield in 2014 after Wembley defeat had they not lost to Catalans in the final game of the regular season.
Last season, Hull KR responded to their 50-0 Wembley drubbing to Leeds by winning their four remaining Middle 8s games to assure their Super League spot – albeit against weaker opposition.
With key creative players Chris Sandow and Kurt Gidley now on the sidelines and Ben Westwood ruled out for the rest of the campaign, Warrington have even more hurdles to overcome if they are to finish the season on a high.
The Wolves now have to quickly put their Wembley pain behind them and channel the experience into a hunger that will drive them to their first ever Super League title.
After all, overcoming adversity is the true sign of champions.
Real men cry and that was the case at Wembley Stadium on 29 August 2009.
As the final hooter rang around London’s iconic venue to give Warrington a 25-16 win over Huddersfield, the most striking image that still remains with me from that day was not something which occurred on the pitch but of a grown man stood in front of me in floods of tears being consoled by his wife.
“Why’s he crying?” my naive 16-year-old self wondered. “We did it… we won!”
But it’s only now on reflection do I understand the significance of that Wembley win – the club’s first in 35 years.
Flash-forward to the present day and Warrington, now a leading force in Super League, are currently chasing an elusive treble, with this Saturday’s Challenge Cup final the first piece of the jigsaw.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I first began supporting the club in 2002 the side were at the foot of the Super League table battling relegation. It was only a penultimate day of the season win over Castleford which meant the Wolves narrowly avoided the drop that year. That of course came just a couple of years after the very real prospect of the club folding and ceasing to exist due to financial troubles.
When I used to watch other teams battling it out in the Challenge Cup Final and Grand Final growing up I used to sit back and think of how incredible it would be to one day see my team competing in those finals. But it always felt like an impossible dream.
To put it bluntly, Simon Moran’s investment in the club has helped turn that dream into a reality. The transformation didn’t happen overnight but the way the club has progressed and grown over the last decade from being Super League strugglers to now potentially being two months away from writing their name in the history books is extraordinary.
Head coach Tony Smith will lead Warrington out for the fourth time at Wembley on Saturday and shortly after his appointment in March 2009 made winning the competition his top priority.
The route to the final was not easy that year. A golden-point drop-goal from Lee Briers saw the Wire edge past Hull KR in the quarter-finals before the side overcame a tough test against local rivals Wigan 39-26 in a tense semi-final.
But they were there and for the first time in 19 years Warrington had a chance at lifting silverware.
Most of the pre-match talk from fans was that the result was irrelevant and simply making the final was an achievement in itself. That notion quickly changed once Richie Mathers crossed inside the opening two minutes to give the Wolves an early lead.
The game was a dogged, nail-biting affair but as Briers slotted over a drop-goal to give Warrington a nine point lead with a couple minutes remaining it began to dawn that Warrington’s name was on the trophy.
As Briers joined captain Adrian Morley to lift the cup, the 30,000 Wire fans inside Wembley soaked up the success they had been starved of for so long.
The joke at the time was that supporters should enjoy the moment because it would be another 35 years before we would win the trophy again. The players instantly proved that wrong a year later by comprehensively beating Leeds 30-6. By 2012, it was almost habitual as Warrington again eased past the Rhinos on the Wembley turf.
Ahead of Warrington’s fourth Wembley appearance in eight seasons on Saturday it’s important to reflect on how far the club has come in a short space of time.
“It’s always your year!” Well, personally, in 2009 it was.
Alex Walmsley admits St Helens are still hurting from semi-final defeats in both the play-offs and the Challenge Cup last season.
Saints were denied a place at both Old Trafford and Wembley in 2015 by treble-winners Leeds who beat them 20-13 in the play-offs and 24-14 in their Challenge Cup semi-final.
The six-time Super League champions get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Huddersfield on Friday night and Walmsley says his side will be more motivated for success after last season.
“To lose in both semi-finals was very disappointing and heartbreaking because I firmly believe we were in those games and on another day might have won,” Walmsley told NothingButLeague.
“It has made us more motivated to do well this season. We’re hurting and we’ve trained even harder because of that.
“One tackle, one set, one try could be the difference between us going to Old Trafford so it’s those little things like giving away soft errors and tackle four penalties which add up and are ultimately the difference between coming first and finishing second.
“As a team we have always been there or thereabouts. Hopefully we will be a different animal this year and those semi-finals will go our way.”
Walmsley received strong praise for his performances last season and was one of three contenders for the Man of Steel award.
The former Batley player believes head coach Keiron Cunningham has played a big role in his development since arriving at Saints in 2013 and says he was pleased to see his coach sign a new deal until 2018 last week.
“He’s a great coach and a great person,” explained the prop, who won the Grand Final in 2014 with St Helens.
“What he’s done for the club as a player and now as a coach is amazing.
“He’s been great with me since I made the step up from Batley and has made me a better player. To have him as the coach for the next few years is going to be great for me and the team as a whole.”
With each team having strengthened ahead of the new campaign, Walmsley predicts the gap between the top and bottom sides will lessen this year and as a result says it could be the closest campaign in the competition’s history.
“It’s going to be a tough season- there are no easy games. Every team has strengthened and are looking sharp.
“As soon as the fixtures get announced you’re looking out for the two Wigan games and obviously the Good Friday match against them.
“Leeds and Warrington are the other games I look forward to the most. They’re always tough battles but the way that Super League is expanding each team each week is going to be a tough ask and I’m sure it’s going to be the closest Super League in history.”
Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos meet at Wembley Stadium on Saturday to decide who will lift the 2014 Challenge Cup. The final marks one of the biggest days in the sport, and over the years has produced some thrilling, nail-biting and tense games. Here are the 5 closest encounters from over the years…
Bradford 22-20 Leeds (2003)
Bradford and Leeds played out a dramatic all Yorkshire derby in the 2003 final under the roof at the Millenium Stadium. It was a game which swung back and forth but ultimately was decided by a crucial Paul Deacon penalty.
The sides went into half time 14 points apiece, but it was the Bulls who started the second half the strongest. Jamie Peacock, then of Bradford, extended the Bulls’ lead and then Paul Deacon sailed over a penalty to give Bradford an 8 point advantage.
Leeds reduced the deficit to just 2 points with a try from Dave Furner and with 5 minutes left on the clock were awarded a penalty with the opportunity to kick for goal and level the match. They declined and couldn’t manage to get past a stubborn Bradford defence as the Bulls held on for victory.
Sheffield 17-8 Wigan (1998)
A day that Sheffield Eagles fans will never forget as John Kear’s team sprung the biggest upset in the final’s history to defeat Wigan at Wembley. Wigan had lost just 2 matches all season, whereas the Eagles were struggling in mid table.
However, tries from Nick Pickney and Matt Crowther save Sheffield a surprise 11-2 lead at half time. They then extended their lead to 17-2 on 52 minutes as Darren Turner went over for their 3rd try.
Everyone was expecting a comeback from Wigan, but it never came. The day belonged to the 33/1 outsiders as Wigan lost their first final in their previous 10 visits to Wembley.
St. Helens 40-32 Bradford (1996)
The first Challenge Cup final of the Super League era saw the two of the biggest sides in the league break records galore as they played out an exciting game of rugby league.
With just over 20 minutes to go Bradford were leading 26-12 in a game in which Robbie Paul had run the show. The 14 point difference that St. Helens went on to diminish is the biggest comeback in the final’s history as Kieron Cunningham, Simon Booth and Ian Pickavance turned the game around for Saints. Heading in to the final 10 minutes, the momentum was with St. Helens who went on to secure a 40-32 win.
The 72 points scored means the match goes down in history as the highest scoring final, with Bradford’s 32 points being the biggest score from a losing team. It was a great game to signal the start of the modern era.
Wigan 28-24 Hull FC (1984/85)
In one of the most memorable finals to be played at the old Wembley Stadium, Wigan held off a late comeback from Hull to win the cup.
Hull opened the scoring on 11 minutes but Wigan hit back with John Ferguson going over in the corner. Two more tries from Brett Kenny and Henderson Gill extended Wigan’s lead to 16-8 at half time.
3 minutes in to the second half, Shaun Edwards’ try put Wigan 22-8 up and it looked like the cherry and whites would go on to run away with it. Hull responded 2 minutes later with Steve Evans but any hopes the black and whites had faded on 51 minutes after a second try from Ferguson gave Wigan a 28-12 lead.
Hull did not give up though. 3 tries were needed in the final 15 minutes and remarkably they got them. However, none were converted meaning the fairytale comeback just wasn’t meant to be.
Hull FC 25-24 Leeds (2005)
It would be another 20 years before Hull got the chance to get their hands on the cup but they managed to put together a dramatic win against Leeds in the 2005 final in what is often considered the greatest final of all time.
With 20 minutes to go, Hull led 19-12 and it looked like the underdogs may cause an upset. Leeds had other ideas though, and tries from Mark Calderwood and Marcus Bai turned the game in their favour as the Rhinos led 24-19 going in to the final 10 minutes.
Hull’s chance appeared to have slipped away, but in the final few minutes Paul Cooke shrugged off the Leeds defence to go over under the sticks. In the dying few seconds Richard Swain charged down a Kevin Sinfield drop goal attempt ensuring the black and whites held on for a historic win.
The Challenge Cup final is almost upon us! Castleford Tigers take on the Leeds Rhinos at Wembley this Saturday for the right to lift one of Rugby League’s most prestigious trophies. Here are 10 things you may not know about the Challenge Cup final…
#10 Wigan are the most successful team
Wigan Warriors hold the record for the most Challenge Cup final wins with 19. Between 1987 and 1995 they won the trophy 8 consecutive times and are the current holders after beating Hull FC last year 16-0.
#9 Leeds and Hull FC have the worst Wembley record
Hull’s defeat last year moved them level with Leeds Rhinos for the title of the most unsuccessful finalists. Whilst the Rhinos have enjoyed plenty of Super League success in recent years, the Challenge Cup is a competition which has evaded many of their star players. Leeds haven’t won the competition since 1999 and have lost 6 finals since then. It’s a run of bad luck they’ll be hoping to turn around on Saturday.
#8 The First Final
The first final in the history of the Cup was between St Helens and Batley in 1897. 56 clubs has entered and the final was watched by over 13000 people at Headingley. St Helens won the match 10-3.
#7 The Lance Todd Trophy
The Lance Todd trophy, named in memory of former New Zealand and Wigan player Lance Todd, is awarded to the man of the match and is selected by members of the Rugby League Writer’s Association. The first winner was Billy Stott of Wakefield in 1946 and more recently Matty Smith of Wigan collected the award last year. Former St Helens legend Sean Long holds the record for winning the accolade 3 times.
#6 The Challenge Cup Plate
In 1997 a second competition, The Challenge Cup Plate, was trialled which saw the teams knocked out in the earlier rounds of the Cup compete. Hull KR beat Hunslet Hawks 60-14 in the final at Wembley but ultimately the Plate did not prove as popular as the main competition.
#5 The Challenge Cup Trophy
The Challenge Cup itself is 36 inches of solid silver and was originally designed in 1897 by Silversmiths ‘Fattorini and sons’ who were simply given the instructions to come up with something that looked prestigious. The original trophy was last awarded to St Helens in the 2001 final, with a second version of the trophy now being presented to the winners.
#4 Biggest Win
Leeds fans will be hearing a lot this week about the 1999 final and how it was the last occasion which they won at Wembley. The day was one Rhinos’ fans shouldn’t forget after a 52-16 win over the London Broncos is still the biggest winning margin in the final’s history.
#3 World Record Attendance
In the 1953/54 final Warrington and Halifax drew 4-4 at Wembley. The replay was arranged a few days later at Odsal in Bradford, but organisers did not foresee how many spectators would be trying to get in to the ground. 102, 569 is the official attendance although it’s believed the figure was more like 120, 000 as Warrington won the replay 8-4.
There have only been 3 final replays in the history of the competition, most recently in 1982 after Widnes and Hull FC drew at Wembley (Hull won the replay at Elland Road 18-9). The RFL has confirmed that if Castleford and Leeds draw on Saturday, the replay will be held at Bramall Lane in Sheffield on the 3rd of September. The two sides drew 24-24 in the Super League last month.
#1 All Roads lead to Wembley
Despite being a predominantly northern sport, the Challenge Cup final was first staged at Wembley Stadium in London in 1929 and then permanently from 1946. Whilst the stadium went under reconstruction in the early 2000s, the final was hosted at Twickenham, Murrayfield and the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The first final at the new Wembley Stadium saw St Helens beat Catalan Dragons 30-8 in 2007. Wembley is now ready for the all Yorkshire derby this Saturday.
The Challenge Cup semi-finals are finally here! Leeds take on Warrington in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday, followed by an eagerly anticipated match on Sunday between two of the league’s surprise packages this season- Castleford and Widnes. Many people are hoping the outcome from this weekend’s matches will produce either a Yorkshire or Cheshire derby at Wembley in the final later this month, but any combination between two of the Super League’s top 8 sides should make for an entertaining final.
However, whilst attention this weekend turns to the semi-finals, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting how the 4 teams got there. The quarter-finals were held just over 2 months ago, and 8 rounds of Super League have been played since. The gap between the quarters and the semis should be long enough to whet the fans appetite, but 2 months is arguably too long. Whilst all 4 sets of fans will find their voice this weekend, you can’t help but feel that some of the intensity, interest and excitement of this year’s competition has been waned by the poor scheduling.
The 14 Super League sides joined this year’s competition in the 4th round after 7 Super League games had passed. Three rounds later, the Cup returned and then the quarter finals were contested 4 weeks after that. If momentum and intensity in the Cup had been building, the 9 weeks since has dissipated that feeling.
Even more bizarrely, the final is only 2 weeks away, giving fans limited time to purchase tickets, arrange transport and travel plans. With the final being played on a bank holiday weekend, some fans will opt to stay over for a couple of nights in the capital and aren’t given a lot of time to make plans due to the scheduling.
On the other hand, you could argue the Super League Grand Final is similar, and offers fans just one week to buy tickets and make plans. However, in a primarily northern sport, making travel arrangements for Old Trafford in Manchester is a lot easier for the majority of fans compared to London.
The competition’s scheduling also upset St Helens head coach Nathan Brown earlier this year who, after his side’s 32-12 5th round defeat to Leeds, was unhappy with having to play a cup match on the back of the Easter weekend double header.
Brown said at the time: “It is the worst possible time to play the next round of the Cup, the week after Easter. It is too much pressure. The RFL have done a lot of good stuff but the pumpkins are on when it comes to the scheduling. Either the Easter Monday game is not an important game or the Challenge Cup isn’t important.”
It hasn’t always been like this. Up until 2005, the Challenge Cup was a competition held in the early stages of the season, and it wasn’t uncommon for the first 2 games of each season to be Challenge Cup ties. The final was held between the end of April and the middle of May, and gave teams something to play for in the early part of the season.
The RFL changed the scheduling in 2005, with the first August Challenge Cup final being won by Hull FC in a dramatic 25-24 win over Leeds. The move was seen to help give the competition a more season-long approach, with the final corresponding with the climax of Super League.
It’s been confirmed by the RFL that the 2015 final will be played on the 29th of August, although it hasn’t yet been revealed when each round of the cup will be played.
The proposed expansion of the World Club Challenge means it’s best the Challenge Cup doesn’t revert back to the old, early season structure, but a change to the schedule is definitely needed. A round every 3 or 4 weeks would be a good solution, and hopefully maintain the interest, competitiveness and excitement that surrounds Rugby League’s most prestigious cup competition.