Challenge Cup semi-finals to set up 'iconic' Wembley showpiece

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Coral Challenge Cup semi-finals
Venue: Totally Wicked Stadium Date: Saturday, 3 October Kick-offs: 14:30 BST & 17:00 BST Coverage: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC local radio and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.

The 2020 Challenge Cup final will be one of the most iconic in the competition's long history, according to former winner Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

This weekend's semi-finals - Leeds v Wigan and Salford v Warrington - make up a behind-closed-doors double header at St Helens.

The 17 October final at Wembley will also have no crowd, but Jones-Buchanan believes it adds a historic dimension.

"It's big isn't it? It's the Challenge Cup," Jones-Buchanan said.

He told the 5 Live Rugby League podcast: "And it will be unique. Who else [in rugby league] has played at Wembley or in a final like that with nobody there?

"As daft as that sounds, we all want to play in front of a big crowd. For whoever goes on to get that trophy it will very strange. But it's also a rare, even unique experience that people won't forget."

Jamie Jones-Buchanan
Jamie Jones-Buchanan celebrates Leeds' 2014 triumph, the end of a long wait to lift the cup going back to 1999

And the former Great Britain back-rower, who helped Leeds lift the trophy at the national stadium in 2014, added: "At the end of the day it's about writing your name down in history and that's what we play the game for.

"When you look back at the plaques and the numbers at the side of them, nobody really remembers that year. But the four teams that are left in, they all want to go on a journey together and make 2020 a special year."

Two of the most dominant clubs

The charismatic 'JJB' is now part of the coaching staff at Leeds who, like semi-final opponents Wigan, rested the majority of their first-choice team for midweek Super League matches prior to Saturday's encounter.

Needless to say, both will be back to near full-strength for the cup game.

And the two clubs have dominated the competition since its inception in 1896, with a combined total of 32 wins between them - Wigan with 19 and Leeds with 13. For Leeds, it will be a record-breaking 49th semi-final.

Wigan famously lifted the trophy eight years running between 1988-1995, but it is now seven years since they last got their hands on the prize.

One of those rested in midweek, but hoping to be back with a bang, is Zak Hardaker. The former Super League Man of Steel is also a former Leeds Rhinos star, who helped his old club win the Challenge Cup twice.

There will be no mood for charity when he comes up against his old team-mates; in fact quite the opposite.

Zak Hardaker
Zak Hardaker was a cup winner at Leeds in 2014 and 2015, but now is desperate to plot their downfall with Wigan Warriors and return to Wembley

"Any team that you leave, every time you play them you raise your game," Hardaker told BBC Sport.

"You want to beat them. When I was at Cas, I wanted to beat Leeds. Now I'm at Wigan, I want to beat Cas and Leeds."

He also shares former team-mate Jones-Buchanan's belief that winning at Wembley this year would make it extra special, and believes that Wigan are in just the right form to win the semi-final.

"I feel as a team we're really hitting our stride." said Hardaker. "If we can come out of this year with a trophy it would be outstanding. It might be something we look back on in 20 years' time when someone asks 'do you remember that mad year in 2020?'"

Salford-Wire an 'equally mouth-watering affair'

Blake Austin
Blake Austin was a spectator in 2019 as Warrington lifted the Challenge Cup

The other semi-final is also a mouth-watering affair, as holders Warrington face the side that just seems to be in a history-making purple patch - Salford Red Devils.

Steve Price's Wire won the cup against the odds when they beat St Helens at Wembley last season.

They were underdogs in that final partly due to the absence of injured half-back Blake Austin, who has an extra incentive to help the Wolves back to the final this time around.

"I got to sit back in the stands at Wembley last year, and what a game to enjoy as a fan," said Austin.

"But as a professional athlete it left a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth to have to sit back and watch. So the chance to go to Wembley and play in a Challenge Cup final is certainly something I want to do."

Salford have not been to Wembley since 1969, when they lost to the Mal Reilly-inspired Castleford Tigers.

The last time they won the cup was in 1938, inspired by club manager Lance Todd, whose name lives on posthumously as the eponymous Lance Todd Trophy awarded to the man of the match in the final each year.

Now the Red Devils want to write the club's name back into the history books and they have been creating shockwaves in recent years.

Under coach Ian Watson they saved their Super League lives with an astonishing comeback and then a 'golden point' win in the 'Million Pound Game' against Hull Kingston Rovers in 2016.

They made it to a Challenge Cup semi-final a year later, only to miss out on a final fling when they were beaten by Wigan.

Even more incredibly, last season their unfancied squad of players, dubbed 'journeymen' and 'misfits', reached the Super League Grand Final against all the odds, only to lose to St Helens.

Watson's coaching stock has been rising sharply in recent years thanks to those successes.

He is a Salford lad, born and bred, and played most of his career in the lower leagues as a smart and scheming half-back.

He also enjoyed a 16-year international career representing Wales, including a memorable World Cup semi-final against Australia in 2000. He qualified for Wales through his mother's side of the family.

As a coach, he is proving to have the touch of an alchemist.

The sands are always shifting at cash-strapped Salford. When stars shine, they often have to be sold on to help keep the club afloat.

Watson's genius has been to sign players that others have discarded or ignored, and blend a side that has the beating of anyone on their day.

They come into the semi-final as underdogs, but in form and full of confidence. Whether they can produce another fairytale remains to be seen.

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