Game One: Wigan v Leeds
Wigan have had a pretty remarkable season so far. They’re three points clear at the top of the tableland have suffered just four losses.
One was right at the start of the season against Huddersfield, one against Widnes after Shaun Wane rested too many players, one against Bradford who were under threat of it being their last ever game and lastly a close run thing against Warrington.
Other than that, they’ve been mightily impressive and most with any sense would back them for a second Challenge Cup win. In fact they are nailed on favourites.
Saturday’s Challenge Cup semi sees Wigan take on Leeds in a reply of last year’s final. Wigan managed to defeat Leeds 28-18 to take an eighteenth Challenge Cup and deny Leeds their second successive chance as they lost out to Warrington the year before.
However, I think people need to be more wary of Leeds. They avenged their loss last year as they bounced back to storm through the play-offs and were crowned shock Grand Final winners as they took the trophy after finishing fifth in the table.
So, what does that prove? Well, Leeds hadn’t been in form last year, they hadn’t been playing particularly impressive rugby and I don’t think anyone with any sense would have put money on them winning it. But they did.
Leeds are a surprising team and if there’s one thing to be said for them, it’s that it may seem as though they’re coasting through mid-season but, when it matters, they are a side that always turn up.
I think this game will rest on the shoulders of a few key players and the game changers here are wingers and full backs.
Firstly, of the top ten try scorers in Super League, both Wigan and Leeds have three players each. Wigan have the nothing short of prolific Josh Charnley. He has 25 Super League tries so far this season, which puts him at the joint eighth top try scorer in a season ever and he still has at least seven games to play in.
Sam Tomkins, as we all know, is capable of creating magic at full back. He trails Charnley with 18 tries but, significantly, has 23 try assists – the second highest in the league.
Zak Hardaker and Ryan Hall will be crucial in stopping both Charnley and Gelling out wide. Hardarker has the second most tackle busts in the league, second only to Sam Tomkins.
But Leeds have a weapon in captain and top goal kicker Kevin Sinfield, who leads the goal kicking stats with 85. Crucially for Leeds, Josh Charnley has the most missed goals at 35 and, if it comes down to the wire, that could be a match winner for the Yorkshire side.
When Leeds hit their stride of form it tends to come in streaks as they have twice put in a run of four consecutive wins. Which is exactly what they will require if they are to lift the Challenge Cup.
I think they step it up an awful lot when it comes to knock-out games and, although I’m not totally convinced they can overpower Wigan, I won’t be as surprised as everyone else if they do. Stranger things have happened, especially from Leeds.
Game Two: Warrington v Huddersfield
At the start of the season Huddersfield were my underdogs and I was desperate for them to do well. Secretly (well, not so much anymore) I would still love for them to beat Warrington. But unless they find the form that saw them beating Wigan, Leeds and St Helens at the start of the season I’m afraid that this fixture is a foregone conclusion.
Since the end of April Huddersfield have lost seven of their last eight games. Could Nathan Brown’s signing to Saints at the beginning of April have sparked the losing streak? Or perhaps it was losing winger Jermaine McGillvary after his England Knights debut to injury or being backed up from two international tests? Who knows.
Something has happened and it’s sent one time league leaders Huddersfield down to seventh place with very little chance of taking this from second placed Warrington.
Warrington have, in contrast, won seven out of their last eight games and will take confidence from their 15-6 victory over Catalan Dragons at the weekend.
Ryan Atkins, Chris Riley and Joel Monaghan are all in the top ten try scorers in Super League and between them, Atkins and Riley have made no fewer than 44 clean breaks.
If Huddersfield have a lifeline, it’s probably in Danny Brough’s kicking game. He’s the second highest goal-kicker (after Sinfield) and his in-play kicking is pretty impressive too.
They also have the knowledge that often, Warrington’s hard work throughout the season doesn’t come to fruition.
Last year they finished top of the table and took the League Leaders Shield but Wigan knocked them out in the quarters of the Challenge Cup and Leeds knocked them out in the semi-finals of the play-offs.
Do Warrington crumble under the pressure of big competitions? History says that recently, perhaps they do.
Warrington are though, the only side out of these two that are in a position to seriously give Leeds or Wigan a run for their money in the final.
It is, sadly I think, Huddersfield’s time to bow out of the competition. It would mix up the final if they made it and surely shake up the 'big four' argument but no one wants to go all the way to Wembley for what would surely be a walkover.