The Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-finals double header takes place on Sunday afternoon at the University of Bolton Stadium and the first of the two matches sees runaway league leaders St Helens face an in form Catalans team who have seen a remarkable turnaround in form in the second half of the season.
However, they will face by far the best team of 2018 on Sunday and, boasting a near full strength team, it will take a hell of a performance from Steve McNamara’s men to reach just a second Challenge Cup Final. In their way is the mercurial Ben Barba – surely a shoe in for Man of Steel – who will no doubt be one to watch in a back division marshalled by the talented half back, Danny Richardson. Showing nerves of steel to nail a long distance penalty to beat Warrington last time out, 21-year-old Richardson boasts maturity beyond his years and clearly possesses the ability to direct a team through a high pressure match. The evergreen James Roby has all the experience in the world and will provide the zip and passing from dummy half for Justin Holbrook’s men and, if the Saints play to their ability, they should advance to the final.
They will, however, have to do that without first teamers Dominique Peyroux and Ryan Morgan, their absences seeing forgotten man Matty Smith joining Matty Costello in the nineteen man squad.
Catalans – who made their only Challenge Cup final appearance in 2007 against Saints – have restored seven first teamers to the squad with David Mead, Remi Casty, Ben Garcia, Mikael Simon, Lewis Tierney, Benjamin Jullien and Josh Drinkwater all returning after recent absences. Former England coach McNamara has masterminded a complete change in his team’s fortunes recently, indicated by the fact that people are suggesting that the Dragons could cause an almighty upset in Bolton. Drinkwater is a vital inclusion in the provisional squad as, since his acquisition in April following Luke Walsh’s retirement, he has been pivotal in their resurgence. Another mid-season addition, Kenny Edwards, has proved to be a force to be reckoned with and, while his discipline can sometimes be called into question, there is no doubting his talent. Six tries in nine Dragons appearances show the finishing ability he has and his marauding style of play has aided his team in scoring many more – if Catalans are set to spring a surprise, the former Parramatta forward is likely to be a key figure in what is certainly a fierce French pack – albeit one without the influential Greg Bird.
The second semi-final sees the reigning Super League winners Leeds Rhinos aim to add some positivity to what has otherwise been a poor season as they face a strong Warrington team who, despite losing late on last week to Saints in Super League, look good value to finish in the top four come season’s end.
One of many teams who have suffered badly with injuries this season, Leeds have what is approaching a full strength team – barring long term absentee Kallum Watkins and Stevie Ward – with Ryan Hall and Jack Walker returning after missing last week’s defeat to Salford while Jamie Jones-Buchanan, missing for the last two months, is once again in the team’s nineteen man squad. Director of rugby Kevin Sinfield lifted the trophy in both 2014 and 2015 and is understandably keen to do so this year. The Rhinos beat Leigh Centurions to reach this stage but Warrington will certainly put up a tougher test. The Rhinos pack will have to be on the top of their game as one reason for Leeds’ struggles this year is the lack of a platform for Richie Myler and Co. to play from. Brad Singleton and Mitch Garbutt will both be returning to match fitness after returning to the scene in recent weeks while the well-known offload game of Adam Cuthbertson can be devastating. Boasting two out and out finishers on the wings in the shape of Tom Briscoe and Hall, Leeds definitely shouldn’t be discounted from reaching Wembley.
Warrington, however, are the favourites and, if Leeds boast two finishers on their flanks, Josh Charnley is arguably the best in the country at taking his chances and, since his return to league in the Spring, he has been one of the stars of the season. Steve Price has been able to call on the winger since March and, in eighteen appearances, the ex-Wigan flyer has crossed for nineteen tries. As a result, Price – himself in his first year at the helm – sees his team in with a shout for two pieces of silverware as, while being in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, they are clear in the top four in Super League and have second spot within reach. Having improved the Cheshire club immeasurably after a poor 2017, Warrington are certainly one of the teams to beat and are clear favourites for Sunday’s encounter. While Leeds will be waving goodbye to stalwart Hall at the end of the season when he heads to the NRL and the Roosters, Warrington will be saying goodbye to half back Tyrone Roberts and the Australian will be keen to leave England with a winner’s medal. The experienced Stefan Ratchford has been impressive throughout the campaign while fellow Englishman Daryl Clark looks to be back to his best after an ‘iffy’ couple of years. Both players will be vital to Warrington’s chances of advancing to the final which would be their fifth in the past decade.
St Helens (from) Lomax, Makinson, Percival, Swift, Fages, Smith, Roby, Amor, Taia, Wilkin, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Knowles, Thompson, Richardson, Grace, Lees, Barba, Costello
Catalans (from): Mead, Wiliame, Yaha, Langi, Casty, Moa, Anderson, Garcia, Bousquet, Simon, Baitieri, McIlorum, Tierney, Jullien, Albert, Gigot, Goudemand, Drinkwater, Edwards.
Warrington (from): Akauola, K. Brown, M. Brown, Charnley, Clark, Cooper, Goodwin, Hill, Hughes, T. King, Lineham, Livett, Murdoch-Masila, Patton, Philbin, Pomeroy, Ratchford, Roberts, Westwood
Leeds (from): Golding, Briscoe, Sutcliffe, Hall, Moon, Myler, Cuthbertson, Parcell, Singleton, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Dwyer, Mullally, Ferres, Peteru, Handley, Walker, Oledzki, Walters