Evergreen Gary Connolly, who is among the select band of players to appear in the Challenge Cup final in three decades, insists the famous Cup has lost none of its appeal.
Evergreen Great Britain international Gary Connolly, who is among the select band of players to appear in the Challenge Cup final in three decades, insists the famous knockout competition has lost none of its appeal. The advent of the Super League Grand Final has arguably diminished the prestige and glamour of the cup final, particularly since the loss of Wembley four years ago, but for Connolly the century-old sudden-death tournament remains the pinnacle of a rugby league player's career. The 32-year-old Leeds Rhinos full-back is back on the cup trail 14 years after the first of his seven final appearances came with St Helens and it his hometown team that now stand in his way of another quarter-final appearance. The Roses rivals clash in a mouth-watering fifth-round tie at Knowsley Road on Saturday and Connolly knows he is only three matches away from an eighth final. "I have played at Wembley, Murrayfield and Cardiff, which are all great places," he said. "There is just something special about the Challenge Cup. "As far as I am concerned, it has never lost its magic. After Shaun Edwards had played there 11 times, he said he just wanted to play there a 12th time. "I have lost four and won three so I would like to even it up before I retire. The more you play in it, the more you realise what it is all about. You don't get many opportunities to play in a stadium like Cardiff so you want to take them." Connolly realised a life-time's ambition when he won the famous Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in last April's final at the Millennium Stadium but it was scant consolation at the time after the Rhinos had been pipped 22-20 by arch rivals Bradford. Leeds led 14-8 after Connolly had scored the first of his side's three tries and they dominated the final quarter without being able to secure the all-important points. "It was pretty hard to take a defeat like that," he recalls. "We were probably the better side but didn't come way with anything to show for it. I am glad I won the Lance Todd but it didn't seem like it at the time. "Deep down, I was hoping to win the award and I was very pleased I did because it was something I always wanted to as a young kid." Connolly, who is in the final year of his contract at Headingley, will return to Knowsley Road needing just one more try for a career double century but he knows the Saints fans will be on his back as soon as he enters the pitch. "The fans won't let me forget my past," admits the one-time Wigan favourite, who now has homes in both Leeds and Wigan. "I still get the odd calls from the crowd but that's part and parcel of the game. I had some great times with St Helens, they were a good club to me." The veteran is one of the most highly-respected figures among his peers, including current St Helens full-back Paul Wellens. "Gary Connolly is fantastic to play against," said Wellens. "He has been at the top of his game now for over 10 years and is consistently picked for Great Britain. He has 30-odd Test caps which shows how good a player he is."
Rugby League fans will have the chance to see their names in lights at the 2013 Magic Weekend when the big screens and pitchside boards at Etihad Stadium will be harnessed in an interactive social media discussion.
Leeds Rhinos have been given a boost ahead of tonight's Super League clash with St Helens at Headingley Carnegie, kick off 7.45pm, with the news that experienced forward Ian Kirke, 32, has agreed a new two year contract with the club.