St Helens and Castleford battle to cement legacy with Challenge Cup

To suggest Saturday’s Challenge Cup final between Castleford and St Helens is the last chance for either of these sides to truly cement their modern-day legacy would be doing somewhat of a disservice to the Super League climax that is to follow. However, victory at Wembley for either squad of players would ensure their place among the greats of their own clubs’ history.

St Helens have a third successive Super League title in their sights but, for now, their focus is on the prize they last won in 2008. Kristian Woolf is the sixth permanent head coach to try and bring the Challenge Cup back to St Helens – by many clubs’ standards that does not constitute a drought, but for one so used to winning, that is a remarkable streak.

“We’re aware of what it would mean to the town, and what it would mean to our players who have been at this club for a long time,” Woolf says. “This is the one most of those guys haven’t won, and we’re conscious of that. But these guys want to write their own history. It’s the last time that this particular group will get this opportunity.”

St Helens are favourites to triumph on Saturday, but they have been in this position before: including two years ago, when they suffered a shock defeat by Warrington. So victory would guarantee this St Helens side as one of the club’s greatest, but their opponents have no shortage of motivation too. While the Saints are bidding to lift the cup for the first time in 13 years, Castleford last won it in 1986, when they defeated Hull KR. For a club hailing from a town with a population of barely 40,000, and where rugby league means everything, victory for the Tigers would be seismic.

Daryl Powell has transformed his hometown club from perennial strugglers to consistent challengers in his eight years in charge. But after coming up short in the 2014 Challenge Cup final and the Grand Final of 2017, a major trophy has remained elusive, something Powell is keen to correct.

“This is an opportunity to leave our own legacy,” said the boyhood Castleford fan. “I’m sat here looking at pictures of the great squads that have played here. When you’re long gone, all those pictures and memories remain.”

This is Powell’s final chance to deliver the Challenge Cup at Castleford having confirmed he will leave to coach Warrington in 2022. Many of this squad will also either head for new clubs or into retirement, and while Woolf will stay with St Helens next year some of their key players, such as Lachlan Coote, Théo Fages and Kevin Naiqama – mainstays of their back-to-back Super League titles – will leave at the end of the season. Winning the cup at long last for the Saints would secure their legacy.

Only two players who will play on Saturday have won the cup before. St Helens captain James Roby is the sole survivor of their last success in 2008, and he could yet decide to call time on his illustrious playing career later this year. “We’re aware we’ve not won this for a number of years,” he says. “We spoke about winning this at the start of the year, and it’s been in the back of our minds.”

The other is Castleford’s Liam Watts, who was part of Hull’s back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017. However, the significance of success with his hometown club is not lost on the prop. “This would be the cherry on the top of everything I’ve done in my career,” he insists. “It would mean everything to me, and to the town.”

Just as Saturday’s final is momentous for Castleford and St Helens, it is also important for rugby league as a whole. No sport relies on its supporters more than this one, so the prospect of 45,000 fans inside Wembley is not only a shot in the arm for the game financially, but a moment to celebrate for one that at times over the last year or so did not look like it would survive in one piece. This is cause for celebration, no matter the result on Saturday.