While most sporting competitions have had to deal with unprecedented challenges this year, few have been twisted out of shape quite like the Challenge Cup.
More than half of the 80 entered teams started in the first round in early January, back when ‘corona’ was just a drink and social distancing was only practiced by Hull FC defenders. Heck, we even thought Toronto Wolfpack would be a success.
The sixth round had been drawn when the country went into lockdown, but with only Super League returning to action (minus aforementioned Canadians) a full redraw was necessary for the 10 remaining sides.
And so it is that five teams are finally entering the competition in this weekend’s quarter-final stage. Catalans Dragons and Hull had to get through a redrawn previous round, the latter after a coronavirus-enforced three-week delay, while Hull KR are the only side left who began back in March.
After all the bumps, there’s finally a simple, level playing field, with all four games over two days and each club just a couple of wins from the final. Any extra games might not help ease a compressed schedule but, with the trophy so close, it’s a serious chance for clubs to bring their supporters some much-needed cheer.
All the more so if, following the news that Super League will host trial games in the coming fortnight, fans can be present to witness it.
The first double-header, at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium on Friday night, begins with Catalans and Salford Red Devils (6pm). Both are one-time winners although, while the French side won in 2018, Salford have been waiting 82 years to lift the cup again.
Catalans have had to force their way through Wakefield Trinity to get here, but were hit by Covid-19 in the aftermath and only returned last week with a defeat to Wigan Warriors. No club faces more challenges in completing their Super League season, notwithstanding the real chance they have of making the play-offs, but coach Steve McNamara is taking this competition very seriously too.
They are edging back towards full strength with Josh Drinkwater, Micky McIlorum and Sam Moa all returning, while Salford could hand a debut to Kallum Watkins. The England international is striving to return to his best form after ill-fated moves to Gold Coast Titans and Toronto, and he could be a significant boost to the Red Devils’ realistic chance of success in the Challenge Cup, having won it twice with Leeds Rhinos.
Watkins’ old side then follow against Hull KR (8.15pm). The Rhinos are the latest side to be hit by a positive coronavirus test, although they beat Huddersfield Giants last week despite standing seven players down as a precaution. Another Leeds player is now awaiting a test result and two others have been stood down, while Brad Dwyer and Alex Sutcliffe are suspended and three others are cup-tied.
Hull KR will be without Jordan Abdull, who also serves a ban, but they won’t be daunted after two impressive weeks in which they have beaten Wigan and pushed St Helens all the way. The last time either of these sides made it to Wembley was when they met in the 2015 showpiece; Leeds won that one by a record 50-0, but a closer affair can be expected this time.
Salford’s AJ Bell Stadium hosts Saturday’s double-header, which begins with the repeat of last year’s Challenge Cup final between Warrington Wolves and St Helens (2.30pm). It promises to be another humdinger with both among the three teams tied at the top of the Super League, having won all five and all six matches respectively since the restart.
Warrington finally begin the defence of their crown more than 12 months after overcoming the odds to beat Saints 18-4, and they do so with a boosted pack as a number of players return from self-isolation. Chris Hill, Jack Hughes and Joe Philbin are back, although Tom Lineham serves the first match of an eight-game ban having been the latest to be punished for somewhat ungentlemanly conduct. Mark Percival returns from a muscle injury for a formidable St Helens squad.
The weekend ends with Wigan and Hull (5pm), who have contested three cup finals in the past including the 2017 edition. The Warriors are the other team challenging to lead Super League and don’t look to have suffered any major effects from the shock loss to Hull KR, winning in Perpignan last week, though they’re without George Burgess and Joe Bullock for the start of their quest to win this trophy for a 20th time.
Hull play six days after beating Castleford Tigers in the previous round, and with three wins in the last four they’re suddenly picking up some form under Andy Last. It will be a tough ask against Wigan though, especially with a spate of injuries as Albert Kelly, Jamie Shaul, Ratu Naulago, Adam Swift and Kieran Buchanan miss out. The glimmer of good news is the potential return from a lateral ligament injury for Marc Sneyd, who so often shines on the big Challenge Cup occasions.