Few coaches have enjoyed as much Ladbrokes Challenge Cup success as Warrington Wolves’ Tony Smith, who has lifted this historic trophy three times since taking over the Wire hotseat in 2009.
The down-to-earth coach spoke exclusively to Ladbrokes News at the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final press event at Doncaster Racecourse, discussing his lifelong love of the tournament, as well as Wembley preparations and Warrington’s recent form. Over to the boss…
Ladbrokes News: This is a trophy you’ve lifted three times as Warrington coach, in 2009, 2010 and 2012. What does the Ladbrokes Challenge cup mean to you personally?
Tony Smith: It’s enormously important. The final is possibly the biggest game in British Rugby League, and it’s a real flagship of the sport.
I can remember as a young boy in Australia, getting woken up in the early hours of the morning to watch the Challenge Cup final. It’s a competition with great traditions and one which is huge over in Australia as well as on these shores.
To be part of this tournament is a massive honour for myself, and it’s something I’m really proud to have played my part in.
LN: You go into this game on the back of five wins in your last six outings. Have you been with your side’s form in that period?
TS: We’ve been okay. I’m not talking us up or down – our form has been alright.
There have been a few very good performances during that run, and also games where we’ve not been impressive but managed to get the win.
Last weekend was one of those, with a last-minute try against Widnes to snatch a victory, but we’ve left it down to the final minutes on too many occasions recently. Hopefully, we won’t need to do that again come Saturday.
LN: Do you prepare the team in a different way to those games, when it’s a match of this magnitude and at Wembley?
TS: You can’t help some things from being different. Obviously, there’s the travelling down to London and training on the Wembley pitch, and there’s always an extra excitement around everyone at the club.
We’ll keep the actual content of the training the same, but there’s a different air about a week like this. But that’s natural – we’re heading into a really special experience.
LN: Your route to Wembley started with a 70-10 win at Oldham Roughyeds. How important was it to go into a potential ‘banana skin’ tie and really dominate the contest?
TS: Well, it didn’t start fantastically, with going 6-0 down – but we responded brilliantly to that situation.
I will say that the draw has been much more forgiving to us than it has to Hull, and they’ve had to work very hard to get to this point, but part of what makes this competition exciting is that the draw is such a lottery.
Part of the romance of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup is that there are upsets and anything can happen.
Back in 2009 when we beat Huddersfield Giants [by a 25-16 scoreline] in the final, we were big underdogs – so you know that sides like Oldham are motivated to upset the odds, and we did well to record such a convincing victory in the end.
LN: Warrington and Hull are undoubtedly the best two sides in the country right now. Are you confident of overcoming them in the final?
TS: Yes, I am – and I think everyone at Warrington feels the same way.
Admittedly, we haven’t beaten Hull so far this year, but we’ve had some very tight, competitive games against them.
We need to find a way to come out on top this time, but we’ve shown some promise in our recent meetings with Hull. Lee [Radford] has built a great side, but we have all the qualities to make this a very tough, competitive game for them.
As you say, we’re one and two in the country now – and hopefully, Saturday’s game will be a really good advert for Rugby League.
LN: There’s a lot of flair and also toughness in both packs. Do you think this will be an exciting, end-to-end game as well as a real physical battle?
TS: I think it has the ingredients to be exactly that. I think you’re going to see an entertaining and exciting contest, but it’s going to be a physical battle as well.
The atmosphere will also spur both sides on. There’s going to be a huge crowd – I think over 75,000 tickets have been sold already, so atmosphere wise, you’ve got two historic clubs with great support, and that can only be a good thing.
LN: On that note, what effect does an occasion like this have on Warrington fans and the town as a whole?
TS: It’s massive. We get reminded about our previous successes and how much it meant to the town, and we’ve really seen that first hand with the town coming alive after we’ve lifted the trophy on previous occasions.
Everyone involved with the club understands the responsibility we carry on their behalf, and the fans keep reminding us that they want to get back there. The first step has been getting back to Wembley, and the biggest one would be to lift the trophy again.
Warrington are narrow favourites for victory at 10/11, though with the last four meetings with Hull having all been won by seven points or less, the best value could be on the Wolves winning by 1-5 points at 6/1.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing