The Rugby League Challenge Cup returns to its spiritual home Wembley Stadium tomorrow afternoon as holders St Helens take on first time finalist Les Catalans Dragons. The match will be the first time rugby league has been played at the new stadium, and brings to a close a break of eight years since the last final took place at the old stadium back in 1999.
This final poses a genuine enigma, the Catalans being the first non-British side to reach the final since it was first contested in 1897. The participation of the French team is even more remarkable given that the club is in only its second season in the top flight Super League competition, and the fact that it only came into existence in 2001 following the merger of Perpignan club sides XIII Catalan and Saint Estève.
The other finalists St Helens have a far more illustrious track record in the competition they won at Twickenham last year; the Saints have lifted the trophy ten times in nineteen previous appearances since they lost the inaugural final to Batley in 1897. St Helens have undoubtedly been the standout team of the Super League era, although whilst they currently top the league table on points difference above Leeds Rhinos they are a side that has show far more vulnerability than the one that swept all before them last season.
The interest in the game’s return to Wembley has resulted in an effective sell-out, with the only issue being the possible take-up of 15,000 Club Wembley seats that have been pre-sold to mainly corporate investors for the next ten year. The logistics of transporting fans from a team in the South of France to North London mean that the Catalans supporters making the journey will be heavily outnumbered by their counterparts from Lancashire, but in true Challenge Cup style the French side are likely to have the lion’s share of the neutral spectators to boost their voices.
On the injury front the Catalans enter the game hoping that former Queensland State of Origin representative Casey McGuire will be fit following a torn pectoral muscle, whilst prop forward Mathieu Griffi may also be back following a layoff. Skipper Jerome Guisset will also return having been rested in last weekend’s defeat at Warrington. The Saints only notable absence is long-term victim Paul Sculthorpe, the former Great Britain captain, with standoff Leon Pryce making his return from a three match ban.
A series of intriguing clashes are expected right across the pitch; the Catalans are noted for their big, physical forward pack, ably led by the vastly experienced Guisset. Former Kiwi prop Alex Chan provides an intimidating presence in the front row, whilst ex-Kangaroo back-row Jason Croker has the experience and all round game to keep the pack ticking over. St Helens will be led by veteran hooker Keiron Cunningham, the sole survivor of Saints 1996 visit to Wembley, and his young apprentice James Roby. Rugged prop Nick Fozzard will be desperate to make an impression having been left out last year, whilst Samoan impact forward Maurie Fa'asavalu is a fearsome weapon to unleash on a tiring defence.
In the backs St Helens arguably have the edge with a back five packed with international experience, notably ex-Kangaroo centre Matt Gidley and current Great Britain fullback Paul Wellens, the reigning Man of Steel. The Dragons standout back is centre Adam Mogg, a State of Origin winner last year with Queensland and one of the leading contenders for this season’s Man of Steel.
But the clash predicted to determine the outcome is between the midfield generals Sean Long and Stacey Jones. The quicksilver Long has already secured his place in Challenge Cup history with a record three Lance Todd Trophy awards, the best British scrumhalf of his generation, he remains a controversial figure within the game due to his erratic contributions to the international scene and a betting scandal three years ago. In contrast Stacey Jones is arguably the second best scrumhalf of the past decade, behind only the great Andrew Johns, the Kiwi legend is the consummate strategist.
Les Catalans Dragons will go into their inaugural final as clear underdogs; with a warm afternoon forecasted it will requite a huge effort to combat the champagne football of St Helens across the wide open spaces of Wembley. So-called “expansion” clubs (it is debateable whether a club from the French rugby league heartlands warrants such a tag) have a patchy record in the show piece event, London Broncos fell to the final’s heaviest ever defeat against Leeds in 1999, but the previous year Sheffield Eagles produced the competitions biggest ever upset downing massive favourites Wigan.
Whatever the result is it is to be hoped that the final produces a match befitting the return of rugby league’s “grand day out in the sun” to its spiritual home.