Vast pitfalls lie in wait for those chasing league’s elusive double

Bradford Bulls' Robbie Paul holds up the Challenge Cup after his side beat Leeds Rhinos 22-20 in the Powergen Challenge Cup final at the Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, in 2003.
Bradford Bulls' Robbie Paul holds up the Challenge Cup after his side beat Leeds Rhinos 22-20 in the Powergen Challenge Cup final at the Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, in 2003.
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LEEDS Rhinos are the latest team to try and fail but that is no crime – they are just one of many.

It is one of the big conundrums in modern rugby league: how can a team win both the Challenge Cup and Super League Grand Final when they are pitched so close together in the sport’s calendar?

Admittedly, Wigan Warriors did achieve the feat last year but it was a rarity, a stand-out among so many failed attempts.

Indeed, Shaun Wane’s side are the only team to have done so in fully eight years.

St Helens married the two together in 2006, the first season the Challenge Cup final was switched from its traditional May slot to August.

But from thereon, only Wigan have mastered what appears to be an itinerary that requires almost forensic planning and attention to detail, not to mention a little luck.

Leeds, who have won six Super League titles since 2004, at last ended their long wait for another Challenge Cup when they defeated Castleford at Wembley five weeks ago.

However, hopes of adding a seventh league success on October 11 – and a first league and cup double in their history – were swiftly dashed at the first round of play-offs last weekend.

Brian McDermott’s side, on a five-match losing run in the league, crashed out in the dying seconds at home to seventh-placed Catalan Dragons.

It was the first time they had exited in the opening round of play-offs since 2006 and, undoubtedly, just another reminder of how the mental and physical effects of winning at Wembley can derail the rest of a club’s campaign.

As a prolific scrum-half, Paul Deacon achieved the double with Bradford Bulls in 2003, before the Challenge Cup finale was switched from Spring to summer, and in Cardiff not London.

But the ex-Great Britain star, now assistant to Wane at Wigan, played his part in that memorable feat 12 months ago.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Deacon explained how they set about overcoming the numerous pitfalls that lie in wait.

“We took some lessons from 2011 when I was actually a player in the Wigan side that won the Challenge Cup final but then got beat by Warrington for the League Leaders’ Shield and dropped off in the play-offs, too,” he said, Wigan actually losing three of their next five games.

“We’d won the Grand Final the year before (2010) but then missed out on Wembley and so all our focus had been on winning the Challenge Cup.

“After the high of that it was difficult to carry on through. We did find that.

“I’ve no idea how Leeds have prepared for this year but all the talk in the press was about how they’d not won the Challenge Cup for years and, as an outsider looking in, investing all that energy and emotion into finally doing it will have taken some toll.

“They didn’t win a game afterwards and, after all that pressure, that’s probably what happened.

“But from the Wigan point of view, we did manage to do it last year. It was hard, though, and you do have to prepare for it.

“Realistically, you have to get ready for a bit of a slump afterwards.

“What we did was decide to play a lot of young kids in the game against Hull the week straight after Wembley.

“In fact, the average age of our side that night was just 19-and-a-half. We gave some debuts out and lost 34-33 but were unlucky not to get a draw. We gave the senior side some time off instead and that helped us draw a line under what had happened with winning the Challenge Cup.

“When they came back, it was a case of ‘Right, now we start a new comp – winning the Grand Final’.”

Wigan actually lost their next game, and final regular fixture, falling 20-6 at home to Leeds in a fiercely-fought match.

That left them in fourth but they headed to League Leaders’ Huddersfield in the first round of the play-offs and won before gaining revenge on Leeds to set up an Old Trafford victory over Warrington.

Deacon sees the task getting more testing, however.

“It will always be difficult,” he said. “Leeds have shown this year how close Super League is – they were second one week and then sixth after just a couple of losses.

“But it is all about learning. Any coach will tell you that.

“You are always looking for ways to improve, thinking about your planning, what can be ticked off and sometimes it takes a little thinking outside of the box.

“Sometimes ideas don’t work but that’s all part of the learning process.

“I’m sure Leeds will look at what’s happened now and learn lessons for next year and do things differently then.”

Deacon’s former Bradford and Great Britain team-mate Lee Gilmour, the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats second-row who is set to embark on his own coaching career at Belle Vue next season, was part of the Saints team to prosper in 2006.

He said: “It is tough. And with the Challenge Cup being pushed so far back it is all the more difficult. I think the RFL extended it on purpose to try and make sure they get two different names on the trophies – the Challenge Cup and Super League.

“They are so close together now it is so hard to win both.

“I do feel it should be moved to earlier in the season, not necessarily back to May but possibly just by a month, so July maybe, so it gives sides that are good enough a genuine chance of completing the double.

“Wigan did do it last year but, unlike us in ’06, they didn’t go on to win the League Leaders’ and the World Club Challenge, too.”

Of course, Saints had plenty of opportunities to repeat their 2006 heroics.

They raised the Challenge Cup the next two seasons running and actually reached Old Trafford in each of the following three years but then painfully missed out every time to Leeds.

“Mentally, I think we were fine,” recalled Gilmour.

“It was more physically draining than anything. You can be playing sides that, if they have not reached Wembley, might have had three or four weeks extra rest over the season and that adds up.

“We were battle-hardened but, inevitably, for the guys who have won the Challenge Cup, there is some degree of partying and celebrating, too.

“In some years, you’d be back into league action for a week and then straight on to the play-offs.

“But I still think we were better than Leeds in two of those Grand Finals. There was only ’07 when they ran away with it.

“I was surprised Wigan did it last year. Warrington’s form had been very good but they’d done it the other way around to Leeds – lots of success in the Challenge Cup but not Grand Finals.

“I thought they’d win it but they under-performed and Wigan – like they are again now – were very, very good.”