LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington hopes his club can align with fierce rivals Castleford Tigers to make Tetley’s Challenge Cup history this weekend and set up another Yorkshire sporting spectacle.
The favourites play Warrington Wolves in the semi-finals this afternoon with Castleford hoping to reach Wembley for the first time since 1992 when they tackle Widnes Vikings at Leigh tomorrow.
If both sides progress it will deliver the first all-Yorkshire final in a decade since Rhinos endured a surprise loss to Hull FC in 2005.
However, more pertinently, Hetherington said: “Leeds and Castleford have never actually played each other in the Challenge Cup final – that itself would be a really exciting prospect.
“It was 1969 when Leeds last even played them in a major final – the Championship decider.
“I remember being heart-broken as Castleford lost and it is quite remarkable that, for more than 40 years and given the success each has had, they have not faced each other since.
“It would be really exciting for the region and there’s such a terrific rivalry between the clubs and I do think it would be a classic final as every time Leeds and Castleford meet they tend to put on a spectacle. It would be a great advertisement not only for the county but the game and a mouth-watering prospect.
“But we know how difficult Warrington will be to defeat on Saturday and, just as with our own bias, their fans and those from Widnes will be hoping to set up a great final for Cheshire, too.”
After the unquestionable success of the Tour de France in the Broad Acres, followed on by the county winning a glut of medals from the Commonwealth Games, thousands of fans filling out Wembley in a fortnight’s time would be another sporting highlight for the White Rose.
Hetherington, who hails from Castleford, is, of course, desperate for his current club to end their recent misery in the prestigious 118-year-old competition. Since lifting the trophy in 1999, and despite their dominance in Super League, Leeds have lost all six Challenge Cup finals in which they have featured.
Warrington defeated them twice at Wembley in 2010 and 2012 and Hetherington realises they will be formidable opponents again today at St Helens.
“I always say semis are 50/50 games,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how you played the week before or anything like that, it’s all about on the day.
“Warrington are a very, very good side yet you could see either side running away with it – each has that in them – or it being a really close contest.”
Castleford, meanwhile, are the story of this season, having been transformed under Daryl Powell’s tutelage.
They finished 12th last September but are now level on points with Leeds and champions Wigan Warriors in second spot, hoping to push on and secure their first-ever league championship success.
Powell, of course, was in the Leeds side that beat London Broncos in ’99 and coached the West Yorkshire club when they lost the 2003 final to Bradford Bulls. Hetherington said: “Daryl has done a fantastic job at Cas, showing real shrewd recruitment and some terrific coaching.
“They are an inspiration to all teams who have not had much success; they show just what can be achieved.”
Powell concurs with his former chief – Hetherington also coached him as a player at Sheffield Eagles – about that prospect of an all-Yorkshire affair.
“It would be a great fit,” said the fellow Castlefordian.
“It’s a great county. The Tour de France put us on a bit of a pedestal the way it was managed and it’d be another tick in the box for this year if we could do that.
“Obviously Leeds is my old club – I won the Challenge Cup with them – so it’d be pretty special. I’ll be rooting for them but as long as we get there, that’s the main thing, and we have to be good against Widnes to do that.”
Castleford have won the Challenge Cup just four times in their 88 year history, the last time being in 1986.
Members of that victorious side spoke to current players at a special dinner on Wednesday evening and Powell said: “They’re players who represented the club with great distinction.
“There’s been some unbelievably good players over the years here – John Joyner, Mal Reilly, Keith Hepworth – and if we can tread the same paths and write another layer of history for the club it’d mean a lot to us.”
Cup previews: Pages 6 & 7.