Challenge Cup finals become tribute to Rob Burrow

Fans pay tribute to Rob Burrow ahead of the Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium, holding a shirt with his name aloft with a big screen tribute to him behind them
Fans pay tribute to Rob Burrow ahead of the Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium - PA/Bradley Collyer

Warrington Wolves 8 Wigan Warriors 18

On a day when the sport united to pay tribute to the late Rob Burrow, Bevan French spoke of his own personal tragedy after guiding Wigan Warriors to yet another Challenge Cup win.

Burrow passed away last Sunday after a four-and-a-half-year battle with motor neurone disease and to honour him there was a minute’s silence before kick-off, which was moved to 3.07pm, and a minute’s applause in the seventh minute of the game, in recognition of the No 7 jersey that he wore with such distinction for Leeds Rhinos.

The fact that rugby league’s oldest and most famous trophy is in the Wigan trophy cabinet is thanks in large part to the brilliance of stand-off French, who earned the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.

Afterwards, the Australian playmaker, who was draped in the Aboriginal flag, said: “A couple of years ago I lost my mum to the same thing [MND] so, with what happened with Rob, it’s been an emotional week.”

Wigan Warriors' Bevan French (on the ground) celebrates with team-mates after victory in the Challenge Cup final
Bevan French lies on the ground as Wigan Warriors celebrate winning the Challenge Cup - PA/John Walton

Eyebrows were raised when Wigan appointed Matt Peet ahead of the 2022 campaign; a poetry-loving English Literature graduate, Peet never played the game professionally but worked his way up through the youth ranks before landing the top job at his hometown club.

However, following this emotionally fraught victory over Sam Burgess’s Warrington Wolves, the Cherry and Whites are in possession of every piece of silverware available to them. Peet had already delivered the League Leaders’ Shield and Super League title last autumn and then conjured a famous victory over NRL champions Penrith Panthers in February.

French added: “We were sitting down at the start of the week talking about what we could accomplish as a group. Not too many teams have gone Grand Final, League Leaders, World Club and then this. It was a main focus for us and a bit of motivation.

“It’s going to take a bit to sink in – all the trophies, so let’s sit back and enjoy it for a few days.”

The win over Warrington was a record-extending 21st Challenge Cup success for Wigan and was just reward for a dominant display. Peet is presiding over a renaissance at Wigan and said: “Today is special because it’s at Wembley. I just like working with this lot. I love them to bits and I’m very proud of them.

“We don’t worry about even the trophies, it’s great but it’s just another day to try and be our best.”

After Wembley united to honour the memory of Burrow, Peet added: “It’s impossible to make a fitting tribute; one try won’t do it, one game won’t do it. Our thoughts are with his family. I’ve never known a more respected man in this sport or any other.”

Warrington Wolves head coach Sam Burgess applauds the fans
Sam Burgess said his Warrington team did not show the level they had displayed during the season - PA/John Walton
Paul Vaughan consoles James Harrison of Warrington Wolves
Paul Vaughan consoles James Harrison after Warrington's defeat - Getty Images/Paul Harding

There was no fairy tale for former dual-code England international Burgess, who put the performance down to a “bad day at the office”.

Burgess, who lost his father Mark to MND in 2007 at the age of 45, said: “We’ve a young squad with 12 players who had never played in finals. It’s experience for us as a group with a new coach and you’d like to think we’ll do better next time.

“I wouldn’t say we froze, but probably the occasion got to us a bit. We didn’t perform like we had all year. Bevan French is a great player and Wigan are a champion team.”

After early sin-binnings for Wigan prop Mike Cooper and Warrington full-back Matt Dufty, the Warriors led when French sent a teasing grubber kick behind the Wolves’ defence.

Zach Eckersley, a 6ft 3in home-grown centre with just a handful of senior appearances to his name, arrived at pace to ground the ball. A second try came in the 23rd minute when French collected a short pass from half-back partner Harry Smith and more fine footwork took him over the line.

Liam Farrell lifts the trophy with team-mates
Liam Farrell lifts the trophy - Getty Images/Paul Harding

In the 56th minute, Wigan’s victory was assured when long-serving captain Liam Farrell showed impressive pace to break Warrington’s line and cross inside the left channel. Smith added his third conversion, but Warrington briefly threatened a comeback when Dufty touched down to cap a period of pressure.

Wigan, though, were not to be denied Challenge Cup glory once again as they ran out worthy victors. As Peet’s team bid to retain their Super League trophy later this year, it will take a special team to stop them.

St Helens win fourth women’s title in a row

Women’s Challenge Cup final: 
Leeds Rhinos 0 St Helens 22

Leeds Rhinos could not honour Burrow’s memory with a poignant victory in the Challenge Cup final against holders St Helens.

Saints beat Lois Forsell’s side for the third consecutive year to secure a fourth successive Challenge Cup and continue their domination of the competition.

First-half tries from scrum-half Faye Gaskin and winger Phoebe Hook laid the platform for victory before centre Luci McColm and prop Chantelle Crowl touched down in the second half. That did for Leeds, who enjoyed plenty of early possession and field position but could not make it pay against a resolute Saints rearguard.

“Saints have won four in a row,” chorused Matty Smith’s victorious team to the tune of the Status Quo classic Rockin’ All Over the World.

Forsell downplayed suggestions that her team had been distracted by the emotion about Burrow surrounding the game, saying: “It has been quite an emotional and full-on week so potentially it could have done. But I don’t think that’s something that you can use as a performance indicator. We just weren’t good enough to win on the day.”

It was a sweet moment for Saints counterpart Smith, who had guided his team to an historic victory last year in the first women’s Challenge Cup final to be played at Wembley.

St Helens' Georgia Sutherland, Luci McColm and Naomi Williams celebrate after victory in the Women's Challenge Cup final, raising their fingers to indicate four straight wins
St Helens' Georgia Sutherland, Luci McColm and Naomi Williams enjoy St Helens' fourth-straight Challenge Cup win - PA/John Walton

Now in his second season in charge, retaining the famous trophy at the national stadium was another feather in the cap as he continues his burgeoning coaching career.

Smith was a promising junior footballer and played in the youth ranks at Everton alongside Wayne Rooney before focusing on rugby league. He enjoyed two stints at St Helens either side of a hugely successful spell with arch-rivals Wigan, helping them to beat Hull FC in the 2013 Challenge Cup final and winning the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.

“I feel speechless and it’s hard to describe,” said Smith. “The resilience we showed in defence at times was huge – our defence won us that game. And we’ve players who can come up with special plays and execute. It was terrific.”

After Leeds’ early pressure came to nothing, Saints led in the 25th minute when Gaskin collected possession 10 metres from the Leeds line and darted through their defence and over.

That poured confidence into Smith’s team and, with Saints and England captain Jodie Cunningham enjoying an increasing influence on proceedings, they soon struck again.

This time, some neat handling culminated in player of the match Zoe Harris finding Hook with a delightful pass and she dived over in the right corner.

After the break, McColm finished off another fine move before Crowl capped a powerful display by crashing under the posts to score St Helens’ fourth try with Gaskin booting her third conversion.