IT IS coming up to nearly two decades since Francis Cummins made Challenge Cup history as its youngest finalist and he has not lost any of his love for the sport’s most famous competition.
He was just 17 years and 200 days old when he lined up alongside the likes of Ellery Hanley and Garry Schofield for Leeds against Wigan in the 1994 final at Wembley.
That day ended in defeat but he scored a fine try and, after another loss 12 months later, eventually won the famous trophy with Leeds in 1999.
As Cummins contemplates taking charge of a side for the first time in the Challenge Cup – his Bradford Bulls side head to Rochdale Hornets tomorrow – it has not lost any of its lustre.
“It’s the tradition that makes it so special,” he said.
“Everything that is part of that; the history, the final and the fact that Wembley is such a great stadium.
“I think it’s the day when the sport does get the recognition nationally and it’s something everyone wants to be part of.
“It’s moved around in the calendar in recent years, and it will probably move again but it is still the pinnacle of the sport for a lot of people.
“Everyone gets to see our sport on national TV and that is good for us. It’s a great occasion.”
Admittedly, a trip to Spotland, where attendances do not normally breach more than a few hundred, will be far different to the cherished endgame in front of nearly 80,000 like in 1993 when Martin Offiah scored one of the game’s truly great tries.
However, there are few complaints from Cummins who saw his hitherto impressive side ruthlessly dispatched by Wigan, ironically enough, last Sunday.
Bradford – who have not featured in a Challenge Cup final since winning at Cardiff in 2003 – had risen as high as third in Super League but were 30-0 down at half-time last weekend.
They recovered well to finish on the end of a 36-6 defeat, but Cummins is not too fussed that his side face a Championship One opponent next up.
“To be totally honest you are looking for a team from the lower leagues,” he said, reflecting on the fourth-round draw.
“It’s not a week off by any means, but when you think we had Wigan last week and the next two are Warrington and Leeds, to have been given a draw against a Super League team would have been difficult.
“We’d have still been looking to progress but it would have been a much more intense game, so if everyone was being honest they’d all say they wanted to draw a lower team.
“The so-called lower teams bring a completely different challenge, though, one which is more about yourselves and how you approach the game.
“Wigan probably did us a favour in that first half last week. It was a real good kick up the backside and that will get us focusing on our performance again regardless of who we are playing.
“We have a few DVDs and will show the players a little of what they (Rochdale) do. That’s something we have done over the past year or so, but it’s mainly about us.”
Somebody who will be anticipating the trip to Rochdale as much as a visit to Wembley, however, is Ben Evans, the Bradford prop who will finally make his debut after joining from Warrington Wolves on a season-long loan last November.
The 20-year-old has been sidelined since pre-season due to a long-standing hip injury which required surgery but the Wales international is, at last, in Cummins’s squad.
“Ben needs to play and this weekend will be a good one for him,” he said.
“He’s been through the toughest part of his career.
“There’s nothing worse than being injured and being out for a long time. It’s worse when you only just start to feel part of a group, but you can’t chip in and help out your mates because you’re injured.
“It’s been really difficult for Ben and even the nature of his injury meant he wasn’t able to come to training every day, so we had to put him up in a hotel.
“But Ben has got a lot of character and although he’s had a rough time, it will become easier for him now.”
Bradford should also be able to welcome back Jamie Foster, Tom Olbison and John Bateman from their own lesser injuries, but each will face a fitness test at their final practice today.
Ordinarily, Cummins would look to rest others who have featured in the majority of their games so far.
“I’d love to be sitting here with 27 fully fit players, but our roster doesn’t look like that,” he said.
“We have three kids in there who are not ready to play yet. If they’d been in fine form then this may have been an opportunity, but that’s not the case; they’ve had some illness and injury and are not ready yet.”