Challenge Cup: Talking points ahead of Saturday's semi-finals in Bolton
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 24/07/19 3:11pm
Your guide as St Helens, Halifax, Warrington and Hull FC fight it out for a place at Wembley in the semi-finals on Saturday, plus a look ahead to the Women's Challenge Cup final...
Halifax invoke spirit of '87
There have only been fleeting moments of success for Halifax supporters to cheer about in the 32 years since the Championship club last tasted success in the Challenge Cup, but this year's competition has provided them with memories to last a lifetime.
After edging past League One outfit Hunslet in round four, Super League side London Broncos were vanquished 24-16 at home in the fifth round as Fax pulled off an unlikely upset.
Then after defeating fellow Championship side Dewsbury Rams 34-6, a quarter-final victory over another divisional rival Bradford Bulls - who themselves had caused an upset in round six by beating Leeds Rhinos - ensured they are now just 80 minutes from an appearance at Wembley.
By a quirk of fate, their opponents at the University of Bolton Stadium on Saturday are the team they beat in the 1987 final. However, it does not get much tougher than taking on Super League leaders St Helens at present.
To illustrate the size of the task the part-timers face, Halifax are 50/1 with the bookies to continue their improbable cup run this weekend alone and a massive 300/1 to lift the famous old trophy at Wembley on August 24.
Halifax's Challenge Cup record
Winners: 1903, 1904, 1931, 1939, 1987
Halifax-born head coach Simon Grix is no stranger to this stage, being a losing semi-finalist as a player with Warrington Wolves in 2013 and 2014, but the 33-year-old will not be using his own experiences to spur his players on.
"I don't think I've played in one like this, that far outsiders according to the bookies," Grix said.
"There's no motivation required. We've got to play against probably the best team for a long while and we'll go and do our best.
"That's all I can ask of them and if their effort is really good we'll come away proud.
"It will be a good day. As a club, we don't often have the opportunities to go to these big games and see the big stage."
Holbrook's future dominates for Saints
On the field, things could hardly be going better for St Helens at present. They are on course to clinch the League Leaders' Shield in Super League and have a first Challenge Cup final appearance since they last won the trophy in 2008 firmly in their sights.
But rumours around the future of head coach Justin Holbrook, who is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with approaches from NRL clubs, continue to overshadow those achievements.
The Australian has been granted more time by St Helens to decide whether he will stay on after the 2019 season and played down rumours of linking him with a return to his homeland.
"It's more speculation than anything else with the interest, but I'll see what happens," Holbrook said.
"I don't want it to drag on. I don't think it's good for any club or myself. I don't want the speculation to be about myself. We've got a great side here and a great club."
St Helens' Challenge Cup record
Winners: 1956, 1961, 1966, 1972, 1976, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008
Meanwhile, Saturday's semi-final against underdogs Halifax will be something of a strange occasion for Holbrook's assistant Richard Marshall.
The 45-year-old made his professional debut with Fax in 1996 and then coached the club from 2015 to midway through the current season before they parted ways after a tough start to the Championship season.
Marshall quickly found a new role at St Helens following Sean Long's switch to rugby union club Harlequins and now finds himself in the unexpected position of outlining Halifax's weaknesses to the Super League side.
"It's going to be an emotional week, because I've been watching Halifax games - basically my team - and looking at weaknesses we can exploit with the ball," Marshall told the Halifax Courier.
"They've obviously been having a tough time recently, but I honestly expect them to turn up on Saturday and play better - as individuals and a team - than they have done all season.
"From a St Helens perspective, we'll respect the Halifax lads and we know they'll be coming there to do a job having been at work all week."
Ellis still leading the charge for Hull FC
Gareth Ellis stands on the verge of another Challenge Cup final appearance for Hull FC he thought would never come.
The back row had originally called time on his playing career two years ago, having helped the Black and Whites well and truly banish their Wembley hoodoo by captaining them to back-to-back triumphs in 2016 and 2017.
But what was meant to be a temporary return for just three games at the start of the season while Scott Taylor was injured has turned into a full-blown comeback for the 38-year-old and he is eager to contribute to more success.
"It's crazy to think back here in 2017 I had given up on all those opportunities to be playing in games like this," Ellis said.
"I've enjoyed getting into the training, and hopefully I can now get onto the field and contribute to the team's performances and hopefully the team's success.
"It's a big occasion. I've won semi-finals and I've lost a couple of semi-finals as well and I know which side I want to be on."
Hull face Warrington Wolves in a rematch of one of the most memorable Challenge Cup finals in recent years where Ellis and his team-mate came from 10-0 down with 20 minutes remaining to win 12-10 in 2016.
Hull FC's Challenge Cup record
Winners: 1914, 1982, 2005, 2016, 2017
With their game first up at 2pm, the winners will be able to sit back and watch the second semi-final of the day between St Helens and Championship side Halifax at 4.30pm.
But while Ellis concedes he would have rather drawn the part-timers than the side just above them in second in the league table, he knows any competition triumph does not come easily.
"I'd be lying if I said we wouldn't have wanted Halifax," Ellis said. "No disrespect to Halifax, but it is what it is.
"When we won it in '16 and '17 we beat Super League teams. You've got to beat the best to get there."
Currie aims for elusive honours
Ben Currie was just making his way as a young professional in 2012, the last time Warrington Wolves won the Challenge Cup.
Since then, the 25-year-old has become an established player at the club and gone on to feature for England at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
One of the game's major honours has eluded him so far though, ending on the losing team with the Wolves in the 2016 defeat to Hull FC in the Challenge Cup final and again at Wembley in last year's loss to Catalans Dragons.
Warrington have suffered similar heartache in the Super League Grand Final since that 35-18 win seven years ago as well, with Currie keen to make amends for those near misses ahead of Saturday's Cup semi-final against Hull.
"I was in the squad in 2012 but I had only played a couple of games that year so I wasn't going to be involved," Currie said.
"The last two unfortunately we've lost but that's part of sport, you win some and you lose some.
Warrington's Challenge Cup record
Winners: 1905, 1907, 1950, 1954, 1974, 2009, 2010, 2012
"I think we've maybe lost our last five finals or something like that. As a group of lads, we definitely want to win some silverware together.
"Obviously we've been very close so hopefully this time we can get to Wembley and cross the line."
Currie was just inches from earning a Challenge Cup winners' medal in 2016, being denied what would have been the match-winning try when Hull hooker Danny Houghton knocked the ball from his grasp while going for the line.
But although he expects the incident to be brought up plenty of times in the build-up to the semi-final, he is at peace with what happened that afternoon.
"At the end of the game, the first thing I did was go into the changing room and watch it back," Currie said. "I wanted to see what happened and how it (the ball) came out.
"I don't mention it but come Challenge Cup time it's going to circulate again. I can smile about it now, it's behind me, it's in the past."
Rhinos and Tigers women take centre stage
The semi-finals may be the main attraction at the University of Bolton Stadium on Saturday, but the Women's Challenge Cup final takes centre stage before they get underway as the first match of a treble-header.
This year's edition is a re-run of the 2018 final between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers, which saw the former go on to lift the trophy with a 20-14 victory at Warrington's Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Among those set to feature for Leeds is Sophie Robinson, who was part of last year's victorious team and is a lifelong Rhinos fan.
The winger is excited by the opportunity for both teams to showcase their skills on a big stage.
"It was good for the girls to play in a big stadium like that and this year it's stepped up another level as well, playing before the men's semi-finals," Robinson said.
"It will be a great day for everyone involved and also for women's sport in general.
"I love putting the jersey on and representing Leeds. I think the fans will turn up for us, so we need to put out a performance for them as well, not only us."
Castleford go into the match as favourites though, having gone unbeaten so far this season in both the Cup and Women's Super League.
Their semi-final victory away to local rivals Wakefield Trinity drew over 900 supporters too, and Tigers director of rugby and Sky Sports rugby league expert Jon Wells is impressed with the progress the women's team have made.
"We are living in an era that is witnessing the true emergence of women's sport and in particular women's team sports," Wells said.
"As a father of two young girls…I find it incredibly exciting that I can show them examples of strong, independent women doing their thing and doing it well - on their doorstep, in a Tigers shirt."