NO Superleague games this weekend, as instead we focus attention on the Challenge Cup Semi Finals. This year?s knockout competition has eliminated amateur teams, club sides from Russia and France, lower division British sides, and Superleague clubs, and now we are left with our final four. Who will win through to the Challenge Cup Final at Twickhenham on 26 August?Semi Final One: Hull Kingston Rovers (NL1) v St HelensSaturday 29 July, 12:30pm, Galpharm Stadium (Huddersfield)Hull Kingston Rovers are the sole National League One side to win through to this year?s semi-finals, having defeated Warrington, Featherstone (NL2), Hunslet (NL2), and York Acorn (amateur) along the way. Hull KR are sitting undefeated on top of the NL1 table, however recently lost the National Leagues knockout cup final to promotion rivals Leigh. Coach Justin Morgan came to Hull KR after success with French side Toulouse, who made last year?s Challenge Cup semi-final only to go down to Leeds. He has a well drilled side including players with NRL or Superleague experience in half back Jimmy Webster, winger Leroy Rivett, props David Tangata-toa and Francis Stephenson, and backrowers Michael Smith and Iain Morrison.However the firm favourites will be St Helens, who sit atop the Superleague ladder three wins clear of their nearest rivals. On their way to this year?s semi-finals they have beaten Catalans, Bradford, and Doncaster (NL1). St Helens have named a near full strength squad for the match, missing only their captain Paul Sculthorpe through long-term injury, and halfback Sean Long tipped to make a return after missing the past two matches with a leg problem. Jamie Lyon was cleared to play after being sent off for a late tackle last week against Leeds and not receiving a suspension. Hull KR will definitely take the game to St Helens, but it will be a tough ask for the underdogs to get the victory here. Semi Final Two: Leeds Rhinos v Huddersfield GiantsSunday 30 July, 3:00pm, Grattan (Odsal) Stadium (Bradford)Huddersfield have overcome Salford, York (NL1), and Halifax (NL1) on their way to this year?s semi-finals, and a victory here and a place in the Challenge Cup Final would come as a huge highlight for a club that has struggled during the Superleague years. Currently sitting seventh on the Superleague table, the club will hope to continue its momentum towards a possible top six finish with a win over their more fancied rivals. Huddersfield have lost to Leeds twice in league matches this season, but are more than capable of the upset, having been the team to put an end to leaders St Helens? undefeated run. They will be looking to their forwards to match the Leeds pack and then for the creativity of Chris Thorman, Robbie Paul and Brad Drew to bring some points.Leeds were runners up in the Challenge Cup final last year, and will be looking to go one better with a win to qualify for this year?s final. The Rhinos are in equal second on the Superleague ladder and having beaten Harlequins, Rochdale (NL1) and Leigh (NL1) along the way to the semi-finals, need to bounce back after recent losses to Castleford and St Helens. Leeds are without Gold Coast bound fullback Richie Matthers due to long-term injury, but otherwise have named a full-strength squad with some concern over stand off Danny McGuire who copped a knock last week. Recent recruit Clinton Toopi will not arrive in time to be considered for this game, and prop Jamie Thackray is ineligible having played a Cup match for Hull earlier in the season. Leeds at their best are a creative and fast paced team, will be favourites here but it?s a match that could easily go either way.Broadcast DetailsBoth matches are televised live on BBC free-to-air across the UK, with radio commentary for Saturday?s game on BBC Radio Five Live, and for Sunday?s game (probably) on BBC Radio Leeds. In NZ on Sky Sports Hull KR-St Helens is a delayed telecast at Sunday 1:30pm, Huddersfield-Leeds is broadcast live at Monday 2:00am, with replays on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively at 8:00am. In Australia both games will be delayed telecasts on Fox Sports: Hull KR-St Helens at Sunday 12:30pm, Huddersfield-Leeds at Monday 6:00am.
TIME to strengthen the PacificAn agreement by NRL clubs slipped under nearly everyone?s radar last week. During their regular CEO meeting, NRL clubs agreed, among other things, that they would allow contracted players to be released to compete in various World Cup qualifying tournaments at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons.This was a uniquely selfless move by the clubs and is undoubtedly welcomed by the ?minnow? nations of Rugby League. Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands will meet in Sydney at the end of this season with the top two advancing to the World Cup in 2008, while two qualifiers will come from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Lebanon, Russia and Georgia when they meet this October. The Atlantic Cup made up of the USA, Japan, South Africa and the West Indies will also be played as a World Cup qualifier this year.These countries, and in particular the Pacific nations, will be buoyed by the NRL clubs decision. There are many players who are willing to represent their nation in these tournaments, but would be unwilling to compete against the wished of their employers.Which raises another issue, now the Pacific players have been given permission to represent the nation of their choice, will they gain access to their best possible squads? As the NRL has gained an increased amount of Polynesian and Melanesian players, it has exposed the talents of a new generation of islanders. Suddenly nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji (who all competed commendably in the 2000 World Cup) can potentially have access to some of the games brightest prospects. International Rugby League may be on the verge of gaining a few more competitive nations ensuring the international game can survive beyond the dominance of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.However one more challenge faces the code: convincing the Islander players to sacrifice the prestige of State of Origin and Tri-Nations representation to play for less glamorous nations.Jarryd Hayne, Mr Popularity at the moment, has Fijian heritage and has recently held discussions with Fijian scout Shane Morris about representing the island nation. Fuifui Moimoi is of Tongan extraction and is a regular visitor of his former home. While Ashton Sims also has Fijian heritage, albeit to a lesser degree. These players, combined with players that have already represented Pacific Nations (such as Tonga?s Antonio Kaufusi and Samoa?s Hutch Maiava) would ensure a competitive and lively qualifying tournament and World Cup. Imagine a Hayne vs Grothe battle, or Moimoi taking on Ryles.However players such as Hayne have already been sounded out by New Zealand and Australia national selectors and coaches. The Kiwis and Kangaroos play regular internationals against the highest quality opposition in front of huge crowds and the world media. Playing for Australia usually means playing in State of Origin series with simular crowds and exposure. This is compared to Pacific nation games such as last year when Tonga played Samoa at Campbelltown Stadium in front of a small crowd. So for someone like Hayne, choosing Australia or New Zealand over Fiji may be an easy decision, which is worrying for international Rugby League. Many players who have Islander heritage also tend to have New Zealand and Australia heritage. This means the Kiwis and Kangaroos can choose the premier Islander players and leave the scraps for the Pacific teams. Players of islander heritage that have subsequently represented Australia include Willie Mason, Petero Civoniceva and John Hopoate. This policy does nothing for the prestige of tournaments such as the World Cup.A solution is to provide the Pacific nations with regular, high profile fixtures. One scenario involves allowing the highest ranking Pacific nation into the Tri-Nations. This, along with including the highest ranking European nation (most likely France) would provide Pacific players with inspiration to not only play for their nation, but to also play to the best of their abilities. In the meantime a bunch of Islander players need to make some unfairly tough decisions in the next few months. We can only hope, for the good of international Rugby League, they choose the road less travelled.
FRIDAY, 28th July 2006 Cronulla v Newcastle at Toyota Park, 7.30pmSHARKS: Brett Kearney, Darren Albert, Nigel Vagana, Ben Pomeroy, Luke Covell, Adam Dykes, Brett Kimmorley (c), James Stosic, Matt Hilder, Luke Douglas, Greg Bird, Lance Thompson, Paul GallenInterchange: Richard Villasanti, Darren Mapp, Reece Williams, Beau ScottKNIGHTS: Milton Thaiday, Brian Carney, Matthew Gidley, George Carmont, Anthony Quinn, Jarrod Mullen, Andrew Johns (c), Craig Smith, Danny Buderus, Josh Perry, Steve Simpson, Clint Newton, Reegan TannerInterchange: Luke Davico, Adam Woolnough, Todd Lowrie, Kirk Reynoldson, Daniel Abraham (one to be omitted)Referee: Shayne HayneSaturday, 29th July 2006 Penrith v New Zealand at CUA Stadium, 5.30pmPANTHERS: Rhys Wesser, Michael Gordon, Mark O'Halloran, Lee Hookey, Luke Rooney, Preston Campbell, Craig Gower, Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis, Craig Stapleton, Matthew Cross, Tony Puletua (c), Frank PritchardInterchange: Frank Puletua, Bryan Norrie, Matthew Bell, Luke SwainWARRIORS: Brent Webb, Patrick Ah Van, Tony Martin, Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei, Jerome Ropati, Grant Rovelli, Ruben Wiki, Nathan Fien, Steve Price (c), Awen Guttenbeil, Louis Anderson, Sione FaumuinaInterchange: George Gatis, Sam Rapira, Wairangi Koopu, Micheal LuckReferee: Tony ArcherParramatta v Manly at Parramatta Stadium, 7.30pmEELS: Wade McKinnon, Jarryd Hayne, Luke O'Dwyer, Ben Smith, Eric Grothe, John Morris, Jeremy Smith, Nathan Cayless (c), Mark Riddell, Fuifui Moimoi, Nathan Hindmarsh, Chad Robinson, Glenn MorrisonInterchange: PJ Marsh, Dean Widders, Josh Cordoba, Daniel WagonSEA EAGLES: Brett Stewart, Michael Robertson, Chris Hicks, Steve Matai, Paul Stephenson, Travis Burns, Matt Orford, Jason King, Michael Monaghan, Brent Kite, Luke Williamson, Glenn Stewart, Ben Kennedy (c)Interchange: Shane Dunley, Steve Bell, Kylie Leuluai, Mark Bryant, George Rose (one to be omitted)Referee: Steve ClarkSouth Sydney v Canberra at Telstra Stadium, 7.30pmRABBITOHS: David Peachey, Nathan Merritt, Todd Polglase, Germaine Paulson, Paul Mellor, Beau Champion, Joe Williams, Peter Cusack (c), Stuart Webb, Scott Geddes, David Fa?alogo, Joe Galuvao, John SuttonInterchange: Mark Minichiello, Manase Manuokafoa, Ben Rogers, Kane ClealRAIDERS: Clinton Schifcofske (c), Adrian Purtell, Phil Graham, Adam Mogg, Marshall Chalk, Jason Smith, Lincoln Withers, Dane Tilse, Simon Woolford, Troy Thompson, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Jason Croker, Alan TongueInterchange: Todd Carney, Kris Kahler, Michael Hodgson, Michael WeymanReferee: Jason RobinsonSunday, 30th July 2006 Brisbane v Wests at Suncorp Stadium, 2.30pmBRONCOS: Darius Boyd, Tame Tupou, Justin Hodges, Brent Tate, Scott Minto, Darren Lockyer (c), Shaun Berrigan, Shane Webcke, Casey McGuire, Petero Civoniceva, David Stagg, Brad Thorn, Tonie CarrollInterchange: Corey Parker, Dane Carlaw, Greg Eastwood, Joel Moon, Neville Costigan (one to be omitted)TIGERS: Shannon McDonnell, Taniela Tuiaki, Dean Collis, Paul Whatuira, Jamaal Lolesi, Shane Elford, Scott Prince (c), Todd Payten, Robbie Farah, John Skandalis, Anthony Laffranchi, Chris Heighington, Ben GaleaInterchange: Tevita Metuisela, Dene Halatau, Ben Jeffery, Ryan O'Hara, Chris Lawrence (one to be omitted)Referee: Paul SimpkinsSt George Illawarra v Melbourne at Oki Jubilee Stadium, 3pmDRAGONS: Ben Hornby, Colin Best, Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, Brett Morris, Trent Barrett (c), Mathew Head, Jason Ryles, Dean Young, Justin Poore, Sam Isemonger, Danny Wicks, Luke BaileyInterchange: Michael Henderson, Jason Ryles, Ashton Sims, Matt Bickerstaff, Aaron GorrellSTORM: Billy Slater, Matt Geyer, Matt King, Jake Webster, Steve Turner, Scott Hill, Cooper Cronk, Antonio Kaufusi, Cameron Smith, Brett White, David Kidwell, Ryan Hoffman, Dallas JohnsonInterchange: Michael Crocker, Jeremy Smith, Adam Blair, Nathan Friend, Garret Crossman, Greg Inglis (two to be omitted)Referee: Sean HampsteadSydney v North Queensland at Aussie Stadium, 3pmROOSTERS: Shaun Foley, Amos Roberts, Ryan Cross, Iosia Soliola, Sam Perrett, Brett Finch, Josh Lewis, Shane Shackleton, Craig Wing, David Shillington, Anthony Tupou, Craig Fitzgibbon (c), Ashley HarrisonInterchange: Chris Flannery, John Doyle, Setaimata Sa, Mickey PaeaCOWBOYS: Matt Bowen, Ashley Graham, Mark Henry, Josh Hannay, Matt Sing, Travis Norton (c), Aaron Payne, Matthew Scott, David Faiumu, Mitchell Sargent, Carl Webb, Luke O'Donnell, Paul BowmanInterchange: Rod Jensen, Jacob Lillyman, Gavin Cooper, Steve Simpson, Justin Smith (one to be omitted)Referee: Gavin BadgerThe Canterbury BULLDOGS have the bye in Round 21.