|Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 17 July Kick-off: 15:00 BST Coverage: Live coverage on BBC One, live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Extra and BBC local radio and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
St Helens make just one change to their side as they prepare to face Castleford Tigers in Saturday’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
Saints will be without Sione Mata’utia due to suspension, with Theo Fages coming in to replace him.
Castleford make 12 changes to their side after their whopping 70-18 home defeat by Salford on Sunday.
Tigers boss Daryl Powell rested many of his first-teamers and played a youthful side in their Super League defeat.
Niall Evalds, Derrell Olpherts, Peter Mata’utia, Jake Trueman, Paul McShane, Adam Milner, Nathan Massey, George Griffin, Daniel Smith, Suaia Matagi, Jordan Turner and Gareth O’Brien all return.
Mata’utia picked up his ban following Saints’ win against Wakefield last time around and despite winning one appeal against his initial two-game ban, his suspension was halved to one game meaning he still misses the final.
His absence means he misses the chance to face off against his brother Peter, who is named in Castleford’s pre-final squad. Neither side have any positive Covid tests coming into the final.
It is the first Challenge Cup final to be held in July since plans were announced to move the showpiece event from August in 2018.
Last year’s final was delayed until October and played behind closed doors due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with Leeds Rhinos edging out a spirited Salford Red Devils under the Wembley arch.
Up to 45,000 fans will be in attendance at the stadium this time around after it was included in the government’s Events Research Programme meaning it is exempt from Covid-19 restrictions.
The 1895 Cup final, contested by Featherstone Rovers and York City Knights, is due to take place before the Challenge Cup final but is now in doubt after after a number of Rovers players tested positive for Covid-19.
‘It’s at the back of everyone’s minds’
St Helens reached the showpiece by beating Hull FC 33-18 in their semi-final and it is the first chance boss Kristian Woolf will get to win the title in his time with the club.
Saints’ previous appearance in the final came two years ago, when they were beaten 18-4 at Wembley by Steve Price’s Warrington Wolves.
The Red Vee’s last triumph in the competition came 13 years ago, when they beat Hull FC in front of 82,000 fans for what was at the time their third consecutive Challenge Cup title.
“We’re aware we haven’t won this one for a number of years,” Saints captain James Roby told BBC Sport.
“It’s a big one at the back of everyone’s minds, at the beginning of the year we talked about hopefully going on and winning this – as would every team in the competition – we’ve put ourselves in a good position by getting to the final against a good Castleford team.”
It is the first Wembley final for Woolf, who has been fully primed on what it means to play at the iconic ground in his season-and-a-half at the club.
“As soon as I arrived here, people wanted to tell me what competitions they wanted to win and who they wanted to beat and that’s been true for the past 18 months I’ve been in the country,” he told BBC Radio Merseyside.
“I’m very aware of how big a competition and game it is and also of how iconic Wembley is. Looking at the scenes [in the Euro 2020 final] on Sunday, you could see the intensity and pressure of it through the TV and that’s something every footy player wants to be a part of in any code.
“We’re very lucky in that we’ve got a good mix of experience and a good bit of youth but what we also have is a group that has achieved a lot together and had some big occasions together and they know how to handle those occasions.”
Giving Cas the ‘best possible chance’
Castleford and St Helens will meet in a major final for the first time but boss Powell is taking charge of his third Challenge Cup final having previously led the Tigers there in 2014 and overseeing Leeds in the 2003 final.
During his playing career, Powell played for Leeds in two Challenge Cup finals, winning against the London Broncos in 1999 before defeat against Bradford the following year.
It is the first time that Castleford have reached a final since their defeat by Leeds in 2014 while they have not lifted the trophy since narrowly beating Hull Kingston Rovers in 1986.
In another season that has been deeply disrupted by Covid, with fixtures once again being postponed as clubs battle to have enough players, Powell says his decision to play a youthful side against Salford was deliberate given it was just six days before.
“It’s a Sunday into a Saturday Challenge Cup final. That says it all. We wanted to play on Tuesday [last week] which didn’t happen and creates a whole host of issues,” Powell told BBC Radio Leeds.
“The risk of putting the team out on Sunday, I felt, was too much. I made a decision that that was what I was going to do.
“A couple of the boys wouldn’t have been fit anyway so we made conscious decisions on picking those that are. Some decisions are out of our hands but there are some I can make to give us the best possible chance [at Wembley].”
St Helens (from): Coote, Makinson, Naiqama, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, Lees, Thompson, Knowles, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Amor, Paasi, Welsby, Smith, Batchelor, Dodd, Simm, Norman.
Castleford (from): Evalds, Olpherts, Mata’utia, Shenton, Trueman, Richardson, Watts, McShane, Millington, Holmes, Blair, Milner, Massey, Griffin, Foster, Clare, Sene-Lefao, Smith, Matagi, Turner, O’Brien.
Referee: L. Moore.