One of the biggest occasions in the rugby league calendar takes place on Saturday as Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils face off in the Challenge Cup final.
This year’s Wembley showpiece will have a very different atmosphere to usual due to being played behind closed doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but that will not diminish the occasion for either team.
Leeds are aiming to lift the trophy for the first time since 2015 while Salford are aiming to add to their sole Cup success in 1938, and we take a look at what is being said ahead of the match here…
Previous Challenge Cup final wins: 13 (1910, 1923, 1932, 1936, 1941, 1942, 1957, 1968, 1977, 1978, 1999, 2014, 2015).
Runners-up: 12 times (1943, 1947, 1971, 1972, 1994, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012).
Road to the Wembley: QF – beat Hull Kingston Rovers 48-18; SF – beat Wigan Warriors 26-12.
Salford Red Devils
Previous Challenge Cup final wins: One (1938).
Runners-up: Six times (1900, 1902, 1903, 1906, 1939, 1969).
Road to the Wembley: QF – beat Catalans Dragons 22-18; SF – beat Warrington Wolves 24-22.
Can Salford take the next step?
A year on from their improbable run to the Super League Grand Final, Salford find themselves back on the big stage as they return to Wembley for the first time since 1969 to contest the Challenge Cup final.
Gone are players such as Man of Steel Jackson Hastings, Josh Jones and Jake Bibby from that team which were ultimately beaten 23-6 by St Helens at Old Trafford, but the likes of Kevin Brown, Pauli Pauli and Rhys Williams have come in and played their part this time around.
Brown, recent addition Kallum Watkins, plus longer-serving squad members Lee Mossop, Gil Dudson and Tyrone McCarthy all have experience of playing at Wembley too – albeit not behind closed doors as this year’s final will be.
But while reaching finals is all very well and good, the Red Devils now want silverware and that applies to few more so that chief executive Ian Blease, who is dreaming of this kickstarting a new era for the club.
“After half a century, it means everything to a lot of people within the city who have supported us for many years,” Blease, who won the Second Division Premiership as a player with Salford, said.
“I know we had the joy of getting to the Grand Final last year, but the historic nature of the Challenge Cup and the prestige that it brings to the club will be something to behold.
“It gets you a bit greedy, thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this every year’. It was always my ambition to come back and leave a legacy.”
Rhinos back in the big time
Leeds last tasted Challenge Cup success in their treble-winning season in 2015, although have endured some tough times since then despite winning the Super League Grand Final three years ago.
The 2019 season was particularly tough, but this year has seen the Rhinos back in the mix for honours as they currently find themselves well in contention to make the Super League play-offs and have an opportunity to claim the first silverware of the season.
It has been a period of change for some players at the club too, with Richie Myler in particular having settled into and even excelled in the full-back role after finding himself second choice Robert Lui and off-season recruit Luke Gale for either of the half-back roles.
Myler’s battle with opposite number Niall Evalds – set to feature for Salford in place of Dan Sarginson, who is ruled out due to a positive covid-19 test – could be one of the key ones to watch in the final and the Rhinos man has wholeheartedly embraced his new role.
“I’ve never walked away from a challenge,” Myler said. “Last year was an indifferent year for us and an indifferent year for me. I just didn’t perform to my best.
“But Rich was quite honest. We were sat in the coffee shop at the beginning of pre-season and he said in the nicest possible way ‘so where else do you want to play?’.
“In adversity you either thrive off it and try to prove a point or you sulk and kick stones, and I’ve always prided myself as somebody who would never kick stones.”
Burrow to be Chief Guest
Had everything have proceeded as planned in 2020, Rob Burrow would have been at Wembley as special guest for this year’s Challenge Cup final, which was originally scheduled for July.
Although coronavirus restrictions mean the Leeds icon will be unable to attend, Burrow has still accepted the offer of being Chief Guest ‘in absentia’.
It means the 38-year-old can continue to highlight his campaign raise awareness of motor neurone disease and funds for the MND Association after being diagnosed with the disease in December last year.
“Rob Burrow represents the best of the sport,” RFL chairman Simon Johnson said. “An inspirational player, a dedicated father, husband and son, and now an inspiration as a campaigner, Rob is beloved by everyone in rugby league and by many, many friends of our sport.
“Rob has chosen to use this platform to say ‘thank you’ again to the Rugby League community for its support to him and his family, and to further raise awareness of MND on behalf of those living with the disease who do not have a public profile.”
“I think it’s going to be a really even contest. If I think with my heart, I would love Leeds to win and take that trophy home, let Rob Burrow have a lift of it and share that with him.
“But I wouldn’t be against Ian Watson’s side, that relatively young side in the development of that ethos and winning culture. I’m just going to look forward to what should be a great occasion and a unique day in our history.”
– Sky Sports rugby league pundit and 1999 Challenge Cup winner Barrie McDermott
How to follow the final
Sky Sports will have a live blog running on our website during the match, as well as a report and all of the reaction from Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Extended highlights of the Challenge Cup final will also be shown on Sky Sports Mix at 11.15pm and on Sky Sports Arena from midnight.