Dave Craven: Ties to savour ahead of fresh faces lighting up Wembley

Leeds Rhinos' Kallum Watkins, Kevin Sinfield and Ryan Hall after another Challenge Cup Wembley defeat.
Leeds Rhinos' Kallum Watkins, Kevin Sinfield and Ryan Hall after another Challenge Cup Wembley defeat.
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YOU do not have to agree with everything Tony Smith says but it is hard to argue he has not got the game’s best interests at heart.

The erudite Australian has been pretty forthright in his opinions since first making such an impression on the British game, first as coach at Huddersfield Giants and then on through his historic stint at Leeds Rhinos, a time in charge of the national side and currently with Warrington.

Always thought-provoking, insightful and interesting, Smith, as they says, “knows his onions.”

So, when, in the immediate aftermath of the Challenge Cup semi-final draw, almost nine weeks ago now, he stated it would be good for the sport that a relative new name would be gracing Wembley later this month, you realised he was being earnest and it was a fair point to make.

That his side were paired with Leeds Rhinos, whom they defeated in the 2010 and 2012 finals, and who, on the face of it, might not have been the fixture he would have preferred, was immaterial; Castleford Tigers or Widnes Vikings would be at the showpiece for the first time in more than 20 years and that had to be welcomed.

With those semi-finals upon us, that sentiment has not altered. Fearless Castleford have continued their impressive form to the extent they could still finish first in this tightest of races for Super League’s top spot.

Seeing Daryl Clark cruising into Wembley’s open spaces, Marc Sneyd, Justin Carney, or Michael Shenton for that matter is a thrilling prospect to savour.

Their fans, some of the most vocal and appreciative around, would certainly deserve such a day and Daryl Powell, for providing such alchemy with his side at Wheldon Road, would, too.

And what of Widnes? Although their consistency has waned, when hot they are scorching.

Kevin Brown is in the sort of stylish form which indicates a Lance Todd Trophy winner in-waiting and Denis Betts – with all his Challenge Cup pedigree – will be confident his side have the ability to shake up this competition if they reach Wembley for the first time since he helped ruin them as a Wigan player in 1993.

The wise money will go on Castleford but, especially considering the loss of banned Carney and Weller Hauraki, plenty of their fans are mindful of dangers that lie in wait.

Leeds and Warrington is so difficult to call. The manner in which the latter destroyed Brian McDermott’s side the last time these sides met in May was eye-opening to say the least and left many thinking Smith’s side, finding their feet after the exits of Lee Briers and Adrian Morley, will be lifting more trophies soon.

But, wiser men than me will tell you, what happened last week let alone almost three months ago, will have no impact.

It will be fascinating to see how Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield fares on his return after the ignominy of that red card and veteran props Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai will need Herculean stints with memories of what occurred at Warrington last time, when the hosts’ pace and power combined to devastating effect, still vivid.

Warrington have many exciting players, too, and Chris Hill, Stefan Ratchford and Chris Bridge have all matured in the absence of Briers and Morley. Smith was right to suggest it will be refreshing to see a different name at Wembley but these semi-finals should be riveting enough.