|Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 17 July Kick-off: 15:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, listen on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and BBC local radio, plus live text on BBC Sport|
For Castleford Tigers and St Helens, nothing has been a bigger focus than Saturday’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
Players have so often desperately tried to avoid loss of form, fitness and the distractions of life going into the week of this showpiece event, notably during that agonising wait between the semi-final and final.
Much like in 2020, there is another factor for players to consider amid the pandemic.
With Covid-19 cases continuing to rise around the country, there has been an even more concerted effort to stay fit and well. No-one wants to miss this grandest of occasions.
“Covid’s flying about everywhere in our area and probably across the country the levels are increasing, so we had a chat about two or three weeks ago to limit social gatherings,” Tigers back-rower Adam Milner told the 5 Live rugby league podcast.
“So, no going to restaurants or going to pubs, and our captain Michael Shenton has taken his kids out of school because he didn’t want the risk as you see schools being shut down and ‘bubbles’ bursting.
“Dan Sarginson missed out on the final last year [for Salford] and you don’t want to be in that situation.
“The full squad, and I probably speak on behalf of St Helens too, have been extremely strict in what they’re doing off the field.”
Saints prop Kyle Amor added: “You have to make subtle changes as to how you are around the training facility. Things you put in place like hand-gelling and when you’re out and about really, thinking about where you are going and avoiding places you don’t necessarily need to go to.
“I think that’s something we’ve done as a group for a very long time, but, like Adam said, you don’t necessarily have to be in a restaurant or a pub to catch it and you can get it just going to your local shop.
“Players and partners have taken extra precautions over the past couple of weeks.
“My wife is a primary school teacher so there’s not really a lot I could do about it in certain respects. She can’t stop going to work because I play rugby league – it doesn’t happen.
“But we’ve all got through it and hopefully it’ll all play its part in a good spectacle on Saturday.”
A final ‘written in the stars’
Both sides are also looking to make modern history. Saints are bidding to end a 13-year wait for the cup while, for Castleford, skipper Shenton was still in his mother’s womb when the Tigers last won it 35 years ago.
Amor, while acknowledging the past, was keen to look forward as Saints can add the cup to back-to-back Grand Final triumphs and cement their place in folklore.
Castleford have the departure of head coach Daryl Powell and several players at the end of the season as motivation, while heroes of 1986 such as final try-scorer Tony Marchant have also offered good luck wishes and shared their memories with the squad.
Former Challenge Cup-winning coach John Kear, himself a Castleford lad and former player, said the ingredients are “mouth-watering”.
“It’ll be a great game. Saints are renowned for playing some really good open football, and Cas are referred to as ‘Classy Cas’ and take great pride in that,” he added.
“Saints have now got a steely defence, to go with some tremendous rugby league players and it’s made for an outstanding final.
“I don’t think it could have been written any better in the stars. Both are very hungry despite what Kyle was saying about not looking back.
“You always look back, and it has been a fair bit of time for Saints, but for Cas it has been a heck of a lot of time.
“Daryl, his coaches and his players will be making sure they perform really well to rectify the recent final in 2014 when they froze on the big stage.
“I’m pretty certain they won’t freeze on the big stage this time and I think it’ll be a mouth-watering clash, an excellent game and, for everybody involved, they’ll have the extra zing of the crowd.
“Last year’s final was a great rugby league final with regards to the standard of play, but it missed something. Whereas this, with the fans there, makes you salivate. It’s going to be tremendous.”
Crowds back, in a big way
After a year of games being played behind closed doors, particularly major events such as the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup, Saturday’s test event status has opened up the potential of a 45,000-strong attendance.
The semi-final triple-header at Leigh was played before limited crowds, while most clubs have managed to host up to 4,000 spectators depending on capacity.
It will be the biggest rugby league attendance in this country since the 2019 Grand Final at Old Trafford, and, having seen the Euro 2020 matches played before big crowds at the stadium, it has whetted the appetite.
Amor added: “It felt flat with no crowds, and sometimes it was difficult to get motivated beforehand. It might not sound like the greatest thing to say as a professional sportsman, for what you were about to do.
“It’s alright once you’ve kicked off and you get into it, you sort of forget about the crowd anyway then. You had to think, I’ve got a game of Super League ahead of me now, and try to find something.
“It’s great. We all play sport because we love the game and have been fans, and to have them back it makes the whole spectacle even better.”