After a month of postponements and games being affected by coronavirus and injuries, we’re finally into Challenge Cup Final week as Saints take on the Castleford Tigers at Wembley in front of what will be the biggest rugby league crowd since the 2019 Grand Final as 45,000 fans will be allowed to attend and I’m glad to say I’ll be one of them (following a negative covid test).
The Saints schedule has been impacted as much as anyone’s with 3 games being postponed in the last few weeks meaning we’ve only played 3 games in 5 weeks, with two of those coming in the last week. I felt we needed the last two games to improve our match sharpness and fitness, as 2019 gave us a lesson in going in undercooked and playing players who were not 100% fit. Whilst we haven’t been great in our last two matches we have won them fairly comfortably in the end, we know what we need to work on but we also have minutes in the bank which on a hot dry pitch which is expected, you cant carry any passengers and be underdone.
We played well against Wigan in the 1st half, there was a real intent to us in the opening 20 minutes as we dominated the territory, defended well and scored a few nice tries aswell. Our 2nd half wasn’t great but the weather didn’t help matters either as we battled through torrential rain and it effectively turned into a battle of attrition up front.
Our performance against Wakefield was also very scratchy. We started the game pretty well and scored two early tries through Mark Percival and Lewis Dodd, but I feel we made a poor decision at 14-4 to go for goal to take the game to 16-4. We were camped on Wakefield’s line and they had 12 men, the obvious play was to top it and go for the throat. At 20-4 the would be no coming back, but a 12 point lead gave Wakefield hope. They soon capitalised in the corner and went in 16-10 behind at the break. The 2nd half was poor for large parts as we made errors and our discipline was quite frankly, awful. The last 15 minutes were seemed to put our foot on the peddle as Wakefield closed the gap to 2 points, but tries from Coote and Makinson settled the game in our favour and gave us a good win in the end.
The important thing was no injuries and the win that’s what we got. There’s areas we definitely need to improve and you’d hope with this week being the biggest game of the season, the players will respond. The key to winning at Wembley will be high set completions, a strong kicking game, staying disciplined and dominating the territory and this is something we can be really good at when the players are focussed.
Four players hit the 100m this week as Walmsley 145, Makinson 117, Percvial 109 and Mata’utia made 102. Defensively Roby made 49 tackles, Knowles 33 and Lewis Dodd made 28. Sione Mata’utia is starting to hit some good form and it was his break for Coote’s try that eventually turned the tide of our game.
Castleford have been hit and miss this season and currently sit 8th in the table having won 6 and lost 8 so far. They haven’t played a competitive match since June 24th, 3 and a half weeks ago going into Wembley. They have had a couple of games called off and they decided to string a reserve side at home in their 18-70 loss at home to Salford this Sunday so there is a huge risk they will be underdone for this one. A fast start for Saints could catch them cold and one thing you don’t want to be doing in hot conditions is chasing the game.
Castleford are taking every measure possible to ensure their players don’t get hit with covid this week including isolating at home and taking their kids out of school in the lead up. All their eggs are in the Challenge Cup basket, so you know Castleford will give everything this Saturday. This is also likely to be their last final under Daryl Powell as he leaves for pastures new at Warrington next season. They will use that as motivation and will use the emotion of that to go all out to win the game.
One thing you can guarantee with Castleford is that they will attack you and look to score anywhere on the field. They’re not the type of season to put it up the jumper and play conservative and that makes them a dangerous side to play against. They have some real quality in Evalds, Trueman, McShane and some good strike weapons in Olpherts, Mata’utia, Shenton and Turner.
21 Man Squads
Lachlan Coote, Tommy Makinson, Kevin Naiqama, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Jonny Lomax, Theo Fages, Alex Walmsley, James Roby, Matty Lees, Joel Thompson, Morgan Knowles, LMS, Kyle Amor, Agnatius Paasi, Jack Welsby, Aaron Smith, Joe Batchelor, Josh Simm, Lewis Dodd, Dan Norman.
Saints picked up no injuries in the Wakefield game, but there is some bad news with the news that Sione Mata’utia has been handed a one match ban and will miss the Challenge Cup Final. Mata’utia has been in good form so this is a bitter blow to us and our back row options, that is already without James Bentley. Saints options in the back row are now cut short as Thompson will likely play alongside Batchelor and Amor will go back on the bench with Lees, Paasi and Welsby.
This is also a journalists nightmare as the brother v brother narrative is now over. From a personal point of view, I find it ridiculous that a player can be banned for something so trivial as the incident he has been banned for. Players work the whole year to play in the showpiece event so for him to be banned for something as innocuous as that is a disgrace quite frankly.
Referee – Liam Moore
Kick Off – Saturday 17th July, 3pm Kick Off, BBC One.
Venue – Wembley Stadium
The weather forecast is fantastic this weekend and we’re likely to see very hot temperatures of around 26 degrees come kick off. Conditions will be absolutely perfect, but due to the heat keeping hold of the ball will be absolutely crucial.
Last 6 games – Saints 5 wins, Castleford 1 win.
Last meeting – St Helens 10 – 0 Castleford Tigers, Totally Wicked Stadium.
We have a very good record against Cas having lost just 1 of the last 9 encounters against them. We did lose in 2020 though, the famous last game before we went into lockdown as Cas won a very comfortable 28-14 at the Jungle.
You have to go back to the 2017 Play Off Semi Final for Cas’ last win before that, in what was an incredible, yet painful 23-22 clash that sent Castleford to Old Trafford. Whilst that was 4 years ago, for some of the players that one will have stung and some may use that as a bit of motivation in this one.
Hopefully Saints will have learned the lessons from the 2019 Challenge Cup Final. We need to respect the ball, kick well and stay in control of the game. You felt that Saints were just happy to be there in 2019, but that will surely not be the case this time round. We also go into the game with the majority of the team fully fit and hopefully not carrying any passengers. If we get on top in the forwards and take our chances then we really should win this game. Castleford will try to go wide and get us on the edges, so we need to defend a lot better there this week. Hopefully being match sharp will benefit us compared to Cas who have had 3 and half weeks off. Saints by 10.