Castleford Tigers’ Niall Evalds out to end his run of final woes in Challenge Cup against St Helens

WITH two painful near misses in the last couple of years, Castleford Tigers’ Niall Evalds is bidding to make it third time lucky when he aims for a first major trophy tomorrow.

The talented full-back is sure to be one of his club’s main strike weapons as they look to cause an upset against St Helens in the Betfred Challenge Cup final.

He has plenty of experience of such grandiose occasions; Evalds was in the Salford Red Devils side that lost out to Leeds Rhinos in last year’s Wembley showpiece having also suffered defeat with them in the 2019 Super League Grand Final against Saints.

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“I’m looking forward to this – and to the fans being there as well,” said the 27-year-old, given last October’s Challenge Cup final was played behind closed doors.

“Last year, it was a weird occasion with a massive stadium like Wembley and just about 20 people in there.

“It was strange. You don’t quite get that big-game feel the same.

“I know this is at a limited capacity (45,000) but I’m looking forward to playing in front of our fans and having a good atmosphere – and a different result to last year.

“I’ve played two finals and lost them both so, hopefully, it’s third time lucky. We’ll all be doing our best to bring the trophy back home to Cas.”

MAKE IT SO: Castleford Tigers' Niall Evalds is hoping it is third time lucky for him in a major final at Wembley tomorrow. Picture by John Clifton/SWpix.com

The majority of Castleford’s squad have not played for three weeks given two recent games were called off due to Covid so there could be fears they will be rusty ahead of taking on the back-to-back Super League champions in the biggest game of the season.

However, Evalds, who has been such a force in his debut campaign at Wheldon Road, maintains that will not be an issue.

“We’ve had a good week of training so far and worked on a few things,” said the player, who is part of England’s elite training squad ahead of the World Cup.

“We’re confident. We know we’re playing a great side in Saints who I’m sure will be favourites won’t they?

ROAD TO WEMBLEY: Castleford Tigers' players prepare to set off down to London for Saturday's Challenge Cup Final on Thursday. Picture: Steve Riding.

“But we’re concentrating on what we can do and we’re just ready to perform on Saturday now.

“Ideally we would have played in that period but it’s one of those things.

“Last year I don’t think I’d played for about eight weeks and went straight into a Challenge Cup final. It’s not something I’ve not done before.

“And we’ve trained hard in this period – we’ve not just been lazing around. We’ll be fresh and ready to go.”

SEE YOU THERE: Daryl Powell waves to fans before he boards the coach taking his team to London for Saturday's Challenge Cup Final against St Helens. Picture: Steve Riding.

Evalds was nursing a knee injury ahead of last year’s final but got a late call-up after stand-in full-back Dan Sarginson tested positive for Covid just days before the final.

He recalled: “I wasn’t supposed to play. I wasn’t really due back for another couple of weeks and obviously Dan unfortunately tested positive and so did Jack (Ormondroyd). So, I had a phone call on, I think, the Sunday night saying we’d have to meet in a park in Oldham – I couldn’t go to the ground – and keep socially distanced with me and a physio and just do a run to see how it was.

“The physios were great with me. They got me in a place where they could get 80 minutes out of me.

“Obviously, it had a big impact I didn’t really play for the rest of the season afterwards – but I managed to get myself back and it was a special moment for me.”

Agonisingly, Salford – in their first Challenge Cup final since, ironically, losing to Castleford in 1969 – fell 17-16 to the Rhinos following Luke Gale’s dramatic, late drop goal.

Meanwhile, Castleford, waved off from their Wheldon Road ground by hundreds of fans yesterday, are seeking to win the trophy for the first time in 35 years.

Halifax-born Evalds is confident they have the tools to do so.

“It’s about doing all the one per centers in Cup finals – staying in the grind, not making errors, defending and all the unseen stuff that fans might not notice,” he said.

“That’s what helps you win big games. We pride ourselves on that at Cas; we play fancy rugby and chuck the ball around but we pride ourselves on our defence and doing all the hard work.

“Without that, you won’t win any of these so you have to be prepared to roll your sleeves up and do all the hard work.”

Powell has named his strongest possible 21-man squad, including Jake Trueman, the gifted stand-off whose chances were rated 70/30 earlier this week as he attempts to overcome a back injury.

Australian prop Grant Millington is also included after successful negotiating his return from a knee injury in Sunday’s loss against Salford when a dozen players were rested.

Jacques O’Neill, the young forward who featured in the semi-final win over Warrington Wolves, is one of those to miss out along with Greg Eden and Tyla Hepi.

Saints make just one change; the rested Theo Fages returning for suspended Sione Mata’utia.

Castleford Tigers 21-man squad: Evalds, Olpherts, Mata’utia, Shenton, Turner, Trueman, O’Brien, Watts, McShane, Millington, Foster, Holmes, Massey, Milner, Griffin, Matagi, Smith, Blair, Sene-Lefao, Clare, Richardson.