IT’S rugby league’s big day out on Saturday when Wigan take on Leeds in the final of the Challenge Cup at Wembley.
The Grand Final at Old Trafford may have usurped the cup in terms of importance and prestige, but the Challenge Cup still has its lustre, though why they have moved it to August is anyone’s guess.
It doesn’t feel right and should really take its place alongside the FA Cup and be held in May – but then again the whole fixture list should take place in winter...
Anyway, Saturday’s match pits Warriors against Rhinos, where once in another time and era it would be the Riversiders against the Loiners, and I know which I prefer!
Bang-in-form Wigan are as long as 7-2 on with the bookmakers to win the trophy, not surprising given their recent Super League domination, while Leeds were humbled by lowly Harlequins last weekend.
But then Wigan will not take anything for granted. The last time they appeared in a Wembley Challenge Cup final, in 1998, they were beaten by Sheffield Eagles, and they were far, far bigger outsiders than Leeds will be on Saturday.
There have certainly been some memorable finals over the years.
This columnist’s first memory was in the black and white days when Eddie Waring was in his pomp and he was thrilled like the rest of us to see that scorching touchline sprint by Tom Van Vollenhoven, as his Saints team beat Wigan 12-6 in 1961.
It was a touchdown made all the more unforgettable by the fact that the try-scorer had such an exotic name, or at least it did to this impressionable seven-year-old.
Hunslet v Wigan in 1965 was another clear in the memory bank.
Wigan won that 20-16, but it was the performance of Hunslet’s Brian Gabbitas that lingers, and he did not deserve to be on a losing side.
Of course, the most replayed final of all time was in 1968 when Leeds beat Wakefield 11-10 in the watersplash final – played out in conditions more fitting for a regatta than rugby.
It was made famous by the fact Trinity’s Don Fox missed a kick in front of the posts just prior to the final whistle, leading to Waring’s never-to-be-forgotten ‘poor lad’ quote.
There was controversy in the 1971 decider, due to an incident that is talked about to this day. Syd Hines, of Leeds, suffered the indignity of being sent off, with Leigh’s Alex Murphy standing accused of feigning injury to get his rival dismissed.
The 1972 final saw Graham Rees score the quickest final try, after just 35 seconds, for St Helens.
It’s funny how things stick in your mind, but I have fond memories of big Graham. A giant bear of a man, he was a real gentleman and drew the shortest of straws a few years later, when he had to try and coach Blackpool Borough in the top flight, with little or no resources.
I remember once complimenting a Borough player on his performance.
“He would go through a brick wall for you, Graham,” I opined.
Big Graham replied: “I don’t want players who go through brick walls – I want players who are clever enough to go around brick walls.”
I have never forgotten that, and when you think about it, that is a truism that applies to soccer and any code of rugby, and an accurate barometer of excellence and economy of effort.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was Widnes who dominated. I once went into the town – more than likely to witness yet another Blackpool ritual humiliation – and there was a Widnes sign, underneath which some wag had chalked Twin Town Wembley. And there was more than a grain of truth in it.
I went to Wembley as a non-working journalist – though I did get a vote for the Lance Todd Trophy – in 1980 when the final was an all-Humberside affair.
Walking down Wembley Way, I felt very much like an unwanted interloper to a tribal, internecine ritual, and there was the amazing sight of a married couple walking to the ground hand-in-hand.
One was wearing Hull favours, while the other half was sporting the Kingston Rovers livery, but due to their lovey-dovey closeness, it was not quite a family at war! Rovers ultimately won 10-5.
Hull were involved in an epic in 1985, losing to Wigan 28-24.
That final is famous for an amazing virtuoso performance by Hull’s Peter Sterling, who was mesmerising. His duel with Brett Kenny, of Wigan, was something to behold.
There were a couple of thrillers in the mid-80s, with Castleford beating Hull KR and Halifax shading St Helens – both matches by a single point.
The final lost some of its magic when it left its traditional Wembley home as the famous old stadium was re-developed, going round the houses to Murrayfield, Cardiff and, of all places, Twickenham.
Wembley was – and always will be – the Challenge Cup’s spiritual home, even some of the traditions are gone, like the community singing.
But who will win on Saturday? The easy answer is Wigan – the Wembley acreage is made for the likes of Pat Richards and Sam Tomkins (left), by a country mile the most naturally gifted rugby player in either code plying his trade in this country.
Either way, let’s hope it’s another momentous game to add to the competition’s illustrious history.