Dave Craven: Everything is pointing to a Wembley classic at long last

Leeds Rhinos players Kevin Sinfield (center) and Jamie Peacock lead the training during the Tetley's Challenge Cup Final walkabout at Wembley Stadium, London.
Leeds Rhinos players Kevin Sinfield (center) and Jamie Peacock lead the training during the Tetley's Challenge Cup Final walkabout at Wembley Stadium, London.
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AS Kevin Sinfield quite rightly pointed out this week, not everyone will think today’s contest is the Challenge Cup final so many desperately desired.

There are some across the hill who will feel Wigan v St Helens is always a worthier showpiece than anything Castleford and Leeds can offer up.

That’s Sinfield, a Loiner in so many respects considering the remarkable service he has given the Headingley club since a schoolboy, yet faithfully never forgetting his Red Rose roots in Oldham either.

However, it cannot be argued that this afternoon’s affair has whetted the general appetite more so than any Challenge Cup final for a number of years.

Certainly since its return to Wembley in 2007 there has not been a more enthralling prospect with so many intriguing sub-plots and fascinating battles.

Wigan and Hull 12 months ago brought obvious connotations given it replicated perhaps the greatest cup final in the competition’s long history, the 1985 epic with Kenny, Sterling, Leuluai et al. But there was always a nagging concern the East Yorkshire side would not hold up their side of the bargain. They didn’t.

It wasn’t intoxicating in 2008 against St Helens either.

With respect to Huddersfield Giants, their lack of a deep-rooted fan-base meant they would never bring Wembley alive in 2009 and, similarly, Catalan Dragons’ visit for the first game back two years earlier was dull.

On paper, Leeds and Warrington had plenty of appeal but their first meeting in 2010 was a one-sided affair and, though the second two years later was an improvement, it did not scream: “Classic.”

Leeds and Wigan had its moments in between, including a super try by Joel Tomkins, but, again it did not fully deliver.

However, Castleford v Leeds? That is a different matter altogether. Leave aside the fact these old rivals, so steeped in rugby league history and sitting barely 15 miles apart, are so evenly matched in Super League, both locked on 32 points with 15 wins and two draws each.

That alone means the game should be ultra-competitive. Bookmakers offering odds of 5-2 clearly seem to think not.

That seems absurd. There is a feeling Castleford, with their unheralded players who have exceeded many expectations this season, will crumble under the pressure of playing in front of more than 80,000 people.

Granted, they do not have anywhere near as much big-game experience as a Leeds side that has played – albeit lost – at Wembley three times in the last four years and won five of the last seven Grand Finals.

But Cas showed in a formidable quarter-final display at holders Wigan they have the mental strength to cope and, given their consistency in Super League, too, Daryl Powell’s side appear fearless.

Much will depend on whether Craig Huby is fit. If the classy prop does play just 13 days after dislocating his elbow, then he has to be able to produce his usual stint of hard graft and not fall away through a relapse.

Castleford, even given Andy Lynch’s famously tireless endeavour, cannot expect to deal with the pressure Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai and Ryan Bailey will apply if they are a front-row light at Wembley.

But Powell seems too astute – not to mention confident in Huby’s potential replacements – to allow that to happen.

That battle up front will be immense and then, on the back of that, can Marc Sneyd and Liam Finn, revelations from nowhere for the Tigers at half-back this term, impart their poise, control, guile and kicking class?

It is almost a given that Sinfield and Danny McGuire will do so for Leeds so their opponents have to be precise.

When it comes to strike players, Castleford will feel adamant they have some of the best – Daryl Clark? Wembley is made for this hooker’s dash and dare. Justin Carney? Just as explosive and dangerous as a certain Ryan Hall.

But it is Castleford’s inherent work ethic that could get them home. They don’t know how to give in. Yet Leeds – with six successive defeats in this final – crave glory so, so much...