Following yesterday’s frenetic and exhilarating Challenge Cup Final between St Helens and Castleford, we’ve returned to our ranking of every Challenge Cup Final since 2001 to see where yesterday’s game ranks in the best Wembley deciders of the 21st Century.
21. Wigan Warriors 16-0 Hull FC 2013
Every Challenge Cup Final is special. And every winner should be commended for their performance. But in all honesty this final wasn’t the most exciting. Wigan – like the Champions they’d go onto be – strangled the life out of the game as they marched onto their 19th Challenge Cup. Their tries came from Iain Thornley and Sam Tomkins whilst Pat Richards added four goals.
20. St Helens 42-12 Huddersfield Giants 2006
This final was never really that much of a contest. The Saints, on their way to the treble, utterly destroyed a Huddersfield team that went onto finish 9th that season. It was a game that truly epitomised the power of that Saints side as they ran in 7 tries. Remarkably, five of them came in the second half as the league leaders turned on the style to kill the contest having led 12-6 at the break.
19. Warrington Wolves 30-6 Leeds Rhinos 2010
The 2010 final was poised to be a classic. Reigning Super League champions Leeds took on the cup holders Warrington in a battle between the sides who’d go onto finish third and fourth in the league. The sub-text was there too as former Leeds boss Tony Smith sought to foil Leeds’ attempt to end an 11-year wait to win the cup. They’d have to keep on waiting as Warrington easily ploughed through them. The Wolves led 14-0 at the break and were inspired by a superb Ryan Atkins try. Meanwhile, winger Chris Hicks chipped in with a hat-trick. The only score Leeds mustered on an embarrassing afternoon came from Lee Smith.
18. Warrington Wolves 35-18 Leeds Rhinos 2012
Two years later Leeds and Warrington renewed acquaintances at Wembley. Many hoped the classic we’d been denied in 2010 would arrive two years delayed. Again, following a fairly even first half, the Wolves pulled away having led 12-10 at the break. After a controversial disallowed try from Brett Delaney, the Wire went up the gears cruising to a third Challenge Cup in four years against an injury hit Leeds side missing Danny McGuire and Brent Webb whilst handing Jimmy Keinhorst only his fourth first team appearance and starting 18-year-old Stevie Ward at stand-off.
17. St Helens 13-6 Bradford Bulls 2001
When I think about Challenge Cup Finals, try-filled spectacles spring to mind. This wasn’t the case in 2001. Due to the lack of flair that day this final finds itself 16th on this list. In truth, it was a battle royal between two of the period’s dominant sides. The reigning Super League Champions toppled Bradford for the third time that season to claim the cup. Two first half tries from Tommy Martyn and Kerion Cunningham guided the Saints to victory. Martyn finished the game with 5 points as he notched a crucial drop goal that ended Bradford’s tenure as cup holders.
16. Leeds Rhinos 50-0 Hull KR 2015
Granted, with Leeds leading 16-0 at the break, this wasn’t the closest final you’re ever going to see. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. However, it’s well-deserving of 15th spot due to the history made by the Rhinos on their way to the treble. Tom Briscoe scored five tries breaking Leroy Rivett’s record whilst the 50-point winning margin was the largest in Challenge Cup Final history. As Leeds scored 9 tries, they treated the Wembley crowd to some superb rugby alongside the re-writing of history books.
15. St Helens 32-16 Wigan Warriors 2004
This was a game well and truly won by the brains and boot of Sean Long. The scrum-half dominated proceedings as Kerion Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe – the other two-third of Saints’ superb trio – assisted in a game that pulled away from the Warriors. Long won the Lance Todd and notched 6 goals in a controlled performance over his former club.
14. St Helens 30-8 Catalans Dragons 2007
This final has a special place in rugby league history for being the very first at the new Wembley. And St Helens produced a performance befitting of the occasion. James Roby opened the deadlock after a tense first 30 minutes with an eye-catching individual effort. Then a well-rounded and well-managed performance from the reigning cup holders gradually took the game away from a Catalans side making their cup final debut.
13. Warrington Wolves 18-4 St Helens 2019
This one’s an odd one for me and I struggled to decide where it belonged in the rankings. With only four tries and a 14-point winning margin it shouldn’t strike me as an all-time classic but in some ways it does. Warrington perfectly executed a game plan to starve a Saints team sitting pretty at the top of the league. It was remarkable effort as the Wolves managed the game perfectly despite having Declan Patton and second-rower Ben Currie in the halves. However, the quality of the opposition meant things always felt tense as you thought one wrong move from Warrington would open the door for the Saints to take charge.
12. St Helens 28-16 Hull FC 2008
With over 82,821 fans watching, St Helens won the Challenge Cup for an impressive third year in a row. However, it wasn’t the one-sided cup final many had expected as the league leaders took on 11th placed Hull. Saints did lead 10-0 at halftime thanks to tries from Matt Gidley and Francis Meli. The 17th minute introduction of the returning Richard Horne did little to halt Saints. However, a Kirk Yeaman try three minutes into the second half gave Hull hope of a first Wembley win. The centre poached a second try 19 minutes later to really put the cat amongst the pigeons. But a classy final 15 minutes from the cup holders saw Saints claim a third consecutive Challenge Cup with a Leon Pryce try sealing the silverware.
11. Catalans Dragons 20-14 Warrington Wolves 2018
11 years on from their first appearance in a Challenge Cup Final, the Dragons went one better as the defied the odds to defeat Warrington in the capital. It was a gritty performance from the Dragons led by the brilliant Tony Gigot. The Dragons got into the lead early and scored their three tries within the first 46 minutes setting up a captivating narrative. For the rest of the game the favoured and exciting Wolves scrambled to find a way to take the game away from a battling Catalans side. The Dragons held on to become the first team outside of England to win the cup in its 122 year long history.
10. Wigan Warriors 21-12 St Helens 2002
The 21st century is still waiting for the definitive Saints-Wigan cup final. Perhaps one day we’ll see a cup final between the two that can rival last year’s Grand Final. But for now, this tussle in 2002 is the prevailing battle between the rivals when it comes to the cup. Tight enough to pique interest and enough momentum switches to keep you on your toes it was a good cup final. Saints led 12-8 at the break but a superb Wigan fightback saw the Warriors turn things around and claim a 17th Challenge Cup.
9. St Helens 26-12 Castleford Tigers 2021
Yesterday’s cup final was an exhausting watch for all the right reasons. It was fast-paced, end-to-end and included some breath-taking moments of skill. At times, in the July heat, the players appeared to suffer from fatigue resulting in an error or two here and there but when this game opened up it was really special. Despite the fact they lost, Classy Cas came up with some superb moments. Whether it was the crazy sequence of offloads just before halftime or Lance Todd winner Niall Evalds ripping the Saints apart, Cas came up with some special Wembley moments. But so did the Saints. The reigning Super League Champions conjured up the big plays at the right times to win the game.
8. Warrington Wolves 25-16 Huddersfield Giants 2009
This final really excited me. Two teams with one cup final appearance between them in the 21st Century butted heads at Wembley as they began their rise to become challengers for all honours in the 2010s. In the end a game that many expected to go the way of 4th placed Huddersfield went the way of Warrington. A remarkably fast start from the Wire saw them score three tries in the first 15 minutes. That left Huddersfield needing to battle back. After Shaun Lunt had crossed during that initial blitz from Warrington – which should go down as one of the most exciting starts to a final with an 18-6 scoreline after 15 minutes – Brett Hodgson dived over to leave the game in the balance at 18-10. A topsy turvy second half followed but a Vinnie Anderson try on the hour mark set the Wolves up for victory.
7. Leeds Rhinos 23-10 Castleford Tigers 2014
A tight, physical Yorkshire derby took centre stage at Wembley in 2014 in a final adorned by the story swimming around it. You’re unlikely to see better execution of a game plan than Leeds produced in this final. They kicked Castleford to death and scored some memorable tries. Ryan Hall stormed over for a try that will never be forgotten thanks to the impossible nature of it and Leeds ended their long wait to add the Challenge Cup to the Golden Generation’s growing collection.
6. Wigan Warriors 28-18 Leeds Rhinos 2011
Three years earlier, Leeds’ wait for that illusive cup win was in full swing as they suffered more heartache at the hands of Wigan. The Warriors got off to a blistering start and led 16-0. Joel Tomkins scored one of the all-time great cup final tries and Leeds – like their poor season – looked dead and buried. However, a pair of tries from Hall and Ben Jones-Bishop just before the break turned the game into a scintillating end to end contest. Leeds fans will often wonder what would’ve happened had Bishop’s break and kick resulted in a try for the onrushing McGuire. Nonetheless, Wigan held on for the win however the story of this cup final exists beyond the final whistle as the shocking change in Leeds’ performance that day continued into the play-offs where they’d defy the odds and claim the Super League title.
5. Hull FC 25-24 Leeds Rhinos 2005
Not only was this a scintillating and close final, it was adorned by a fantastic underdog story as reigning Super League champions and overwhelming favourites Leeds were vanquished. It was a final of risks for Leeds. They risked the injured Keith Senior in a move that massively backfired and famously Marcus Bai risked offloading in his own in-goal which unsurprisingly led to a Hull try. That said, the Rhinos still put in an eye-catching performance with skipper Kevin Sinfield awarded the Lance Todd Trophy. That shows just how close this was and it was a final won by the finest of margins.
4. Leeds Rhinos 17-16 Salford Red Devils 2020
15 years later it was Leeds winning by a single point as they looked to win a 14th Challenge Cup in honour of legend Rob Burrow who is still fighting motor neurone disease. In a Burrow inspired jersey Leeds met Salford. It was a final that was set to leave neutrals happy no matter who won given Burrow’s plight and Salford’s underdog story. Leeds started the better scoring first through Tom Briscoe and led 12-6 at halftime. However, Salford resurgently battled back. The Red Devils found themselves 16-12 ahead with 20 to go and had never lost from a winning position during their cup run. So it was a big relief for Leeds when Ash Handley grabbed his second to level the scores. Then skipper Luke Gale, fittingly wearing Burrow’s number 7 on his back, won it with a drop goal.
3. Hull FC 18-14 Wigan Warriors 2017
An overlooked sequel, this cup final would be regarded as the defining modern Challenge Cup Final but for the previous year’s entry. In an end to end game where momentum continued to shift and controversy constantly reared its head, Hull edged a fancied Wigan side to retain the cup. They led 12-10 at the break after Fetuli Talanoa, Mahe Fonua, John Bateman and Oliver Gildart exchanged tries. Then in the 47th minute, Fonua added a second with a superb finish the corner, Sneyd converted to give the Black and Whites a crucial 8-point lead. Wigan wouldn’t go away however handing themselves a lifeline in the shape of a Joe Burgess try. He thought he’d at least levelled the game late on too and would’ve done had the play not been called back for a forward pass. A cup final that kept you on edge of your seat from start to finish, it has to be considered one of the best.
2. Bradford Bulls 22-20 Leeds Rhinos 2003
Of the three major finals in three years these two contested over 2003-05, this has to be considered the best. Once again a Rhino claimed the Lance Todd – this time Gary Connolly – despite Leeds being on the wrong-side of the scoreline demonstrating just how tight this game was. The two sides headed into the second half at 14-all and traded tries in the second half. A Paul Deacon penalty was eventually the difference. However, the game could’ve ended 22-all had Sinfield – in his first year as captain – elected to level the game with a penalty late on. He chose to run and Bradford held on for a memorable win.
1. Hull FC 12-10 Warrington Wolves 2016
What a final this was. It had everything, frenetic attack, steely defence, a comeback, a story and endless drama. The Wolves headed 10-0 up with Currie scoring a superb long-range try that seemed certain to land him the Lance Todd Trophy. However, a resilient Hull team fought back and snatched the lead thanks to converted tries from Fonua and Jamie Shaul. However, the Wolves were afforded one last chance and it fell to Currie. He was inches away from winning it and almost certainly claiming the Man of the Match. However, one of the greatest tackles you’ll ever see from Danny Houghton denied him ending Hull’s long wait to win a cup final at Wembley.