And so we’re off to Wembley. Well, some are I think, although it will be far from full as the RFL try desperately at the eleventh hour to throw 40,000 tickets away to all and sundry.
It will almost certainly be the lowest Challenge Cup final attendance at the new Wembley and that will show the sport in a poor light, and while Catalans’ place in the final goes some way to excusing that it is clear that many more fans across the country, and the world, would be able to travel if it was at a different date in the calendar, and certainly if we knew the finalists with more than three weeks’ notice.
Anyway, I hope that the attendance doesn’t detract from what will almost certainly be a cracking game. Warrington won by 50 points when the teams met a fortnight ago but you can discard that result straight away – there will be no players benched, none saving their energies, none thinking ahead to future fixtures, and there are no mere league points at stake. This is the Challenge Cup final.
Steve McNamara will be a little concerned at their performances in the past two Super League games, with just a single try scored in each, but he also knows that there is much more in his squad than was on show in either match. Their sensational semi-final win showed how good the Dragons can be when every player is at their absolute best, and if they can do that again then I believe the Cup is theirs – simple as.
When they’re on their game that pack is exceptional, with Michael McIlorum leading from hooker alongside captain Remi Casty, who has to be one of the best forwards in Super League this season. If they can get the game at their speed like they did against St Helens, and maintain that intensity over long enough spells, they will win.
And it’s as simple as that because they have such great talent in their back division as well. You wonder how on earth Leigh got relegated with Samisoni Langi and Josh Drinkwater in their ranks, because those two are an incredible half-back combination when playing with the freedom that McNamara has given them.
Then there are match winners behind them as well, with Tony Gigot in superb form at full-back, David Mead showing the class at centre that we expected when he first signed, and Fouad Yaha a powerhouse on the wing and a fine finisher too.
Of course there is no shortage of quality in Warrington’s side either, and they are in the top four (a full ten points ahead of the Dragons, no less) for a reason. It took a little bit of time for Steve Price’s methods to have the right effect at the start of the season, but he took a team that had by their own admission slacked under Tony Smith, and turned them into the formidable force that they should be on paper.
Their forward pack is strong and that’s where they’ve won most of their games this season. Daryl Clark has been superb and hooker, and when he is on form he lifts everyone around him by controlling the tempo from dummy-half, whilst making tackle after tackle in defence. If the Wolves do win on Saturday, I’d be surprised if anyone other than Clark took home the Lance Todd trophy.
Alongside him there are plenty of tough warriors with the likes of Chris Hill, Mike Cooper and Ben Westwood, while Ben Murdoch-Masila is certain to have an impact of one kind or another on this final, but that pack still looks to be a little short, in terms of both size and certainly variation, compared to the Dragons.
There are some match-winners at the back, starting with Stefan Ratchford who has been in great form this season. If he’s given the platform he will both score tries and create them, and Tom Lineham and Josh Charnley both know how to find the line with a whiff of a chance.
You won’t get very far without real impact from your half-backs though, and that is the area that would worry me a little. Neither Kevin Brown nor Tyrone Roberts have excelled this season, but if Catalans bring anything close to their A game then at least one of the halves will need a top, top performance. Which of them will step up to the plate on the big stage?
Despite the head-to-head being strongly in Warrington’s favour over the last few years, I don’t think there is much to choose between the sides. Both have a big forward pack led by highly skilled hookers, who will be so key to their teams. Whichever starts the best, getting the game at their own speed and building attacking momentum, will be well on their way to victory.
The question is whether Catalans have enough left in the tank to produce another performance like the one against Saints, because if they do then they will win the final. I couldn’t even venture a confident prediction on how close the game will be – anything really could happen. The onus is on the Dragons though, and I think they can make Saturday a historic day for rugby league.
Prediction: Catalans Dragons 25-18 Warrington Wolves