Challenge Cup semi-final: St Helens know how will prevent second mauling by Leopards

Saints coach Paul Wellens. Picture by Allan McKenzie/ coach Paul Wellens. Picture by Allan McKenzie/
Saints coach Paul Wellens. Picture by Allan McKenzie/
Leigh pulled off a surprise 20-12 win when the two sides met in the Super League in March.

No one will be relishing the Rugby League Challenge Cup semi-final on Saturday more than New Zealand-born James Bell and it isn’t surprising. If selected in the final squad, as seems likely, the 29-year-old Saints’ second rower, or loose forward, will come face-to-face with his previous club, Leigh, at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington.

The Leopards were still competing in the Championship when Kristian Woolf, then boss at the Totally Wicked Stadium, snapped up Bell from ‘just down the road’ in November 2021.

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Now St Helens’ faith in his ability is paying dividends and since the start of the 2023 season he has featured in 21 games, including the World Club Challenge victory over Penrith Panthers in Australia in February.

But one of this season’s setbacks came in a Betfred Super League clash at Leigh Sports Village in March, when the hosts stormed to a 20-12 triumph.

Shorrocks went over for a try in Leigh's victory over St Helens last weekShorrocks went over for a try in Leigh's victory over St Helens last week
Shorrocks went over for a try in Leigh's victory over St Helens last week

It was considered in many quarters as a victory out of the blue but since then Leigh have shown their capabilities, lie second in league table, and are totally focused on repeating their early 1970s victory at Wembley when, inspired by player-coach and St Helens legend Alex Murphy, they defeated much-fancied Leeds 24-7 in front of 85,514 fans.

Like their predecessors,they will go into this weekend’s semi-final as underdogs against the 13-times winners, even though they are four points ahead of the defending champions in the battle for top spot.

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The club has recruited wisely by bringing on board the likes of Zak Hardaker, Matt Davis, Rob Mulhern, Oliver Holmes, Jacob Gannon, Jack Hughes, Tom Briscoe and half back Gareth O’Brien, who spent time on loan at St Helens in 2013.

With the array of talent and experiences available to head coach Adrian Lam, the Leopards will certainly give Saints a run for their money.

But Paul Wellens’ side have ‘seen and done it all before’, and will hopefully be boosted by the expected return of injury victims Tommy Makinson, Joe Batchelor and Curtis Sironen.

It is likely to go down to the wire but at the end of the day St Helens’ big-time know-how will tip the balance their way and a Wembley final against either Wigan Warriors, or Hull KR.

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I am expecting cup holders Wigan to make a swift return to the Mecca of British sport but the Robins will ruffle a few feathers at Headingley on Sunday as they bid to reach their first final since they beat neighbours Hull FC 10-5 during the 1979-80 campaign.

🏉 Saints Ladies will also be bidding for a place at Wembley when they clash head-on with York Valkyrie at Warrington on Saturday in their version of the Women’s Challenge Cup.

The semi-final showdown will precede the St Helens-Leigh last four tie at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, and will kick-off 11.45am.

Matty Smith’s side have only lost one Super League match this season - and that was against York - but they will be determined to hold on to the trophy which they won in 2022.

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Wigan, too, will be hoping to reach the  final with a victory against Leeds at Headingley in a Roses battle which is hard to call.

The finals, which include the AB Sundeck 1895 showdown, will be staged on Saturday, August 12, and for the first time the Women’s Challenge Cup Final. will be played at Wembley as part of the traditional showpiece. It promises to be an occasion to remember and another piece of history-making for the sport.

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