Challenge Cup semi-final: Michael Monaghan dreams of final bow

With brother Joel alongside him, the Warrington hooker will seek to end his successful career at ‘home from home’ Wembley by inflicting another Challenge Cup defeat on Leeds, reports Dave Hadfield

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For a hooker, the player who handles the ball more than any other in a rugby league team, the game is all about timing.

A few weeks ago it looked as though Michael Monaghan’s had deserted him completely. After six highly successful  seasons at Warrington, his English career was set to peter out through injury.

Monaghan, part of three Challenge Cup triumphs since joining the Wolves in 2008, tore his calf muscle in the quarter-final win over Bradford. He had already announced his intention to retire at the end of the  season and it seemed that his time might be up earlier than that.

But the elder of the Monaghan brothers had other ideas and last week in the south of France proved he was fit to take his place for this most fraternal of clubs in Saturday’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Leeds. Not only that, but he was the best player on the field as the Wolves beat the Catalan Dragons 26-24 in Perpignan.

“Michael was unbelievable,” said his brother, Super League’s leading try-scorer, Joel, after that match. “He hasn’t played for 10 weeks and he turned in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him since I’ve been here.’

The Warrington coach, Tony Smith, echoed those sentiments. “Michael Monaghan was the difference between the two sides,” he said. “I thought he was out of this world in terms of his defence. He created errors in the opposition with the way he tackled.”

The Australian Monaghans are one of three sets of brothers on Warrington’s books, but the only pair likely to start the semi-final at St Helens’ Langtree Park.

The Welsh twins Rhys and Ben Evans have appeared together for the Wolves, although the winger, Rhys, is the one in line to appear in a Challenge Cup semi-final for the first time.

Chris Bridge is a regular at half-back or centre, while his younger brother, Danny, who made his first-team debut last season, is learning his craft as a second-rower in the academy.

Smith likes to infer that this brotherly overload fits in with his image of the club as a family. There is no doubt at the moment, however, it is the Monaghan siblings who hold much of the Wolves’ hopes in their hands this weekend and, if they get there, at Wembley a fortnight later.

Michael, now 34, was man of the match and winner of the Lance Todd Trophy in his first final in 2009, when Warrington beat Huddersfield at Wembley to end a 35-year wait for Cup glory, and he admits that the club now has “an affinity” with the place.

“I’ve got some great memories of Wembley,” he said. “I will always look back on them fondly and I hope I get the chance to add some more.”

You could say that for both members of the Monaghan family. The winger or centre, Joel, two years younger, followed Michael to Warrington in 2011 after being sacked by the Canberra Raiders for figuring in a compromising photo circulated on social media.

He was outstanding for the Wolves in the 2012 final victory over Leeds, scoring the opening try in a 35-18 romp. That was from a kick by Richie Myler; on other occasions it would be from the now retired Lee Briers. Now it is most likely to be from his brother, whose kicking game, darting out from dummy-half, frequently adds an extra dimension to the Wolves’ attacking play.

If it would be a case of home from home for Warrington and the Monaghans, Leeds’ relationship with Wembley and the Cup final is a very different thing. They have made the final six times since 1999 and have lost the lot, including the 2010 and 2012 finals to Warrington. That means that a truly outstanding generation of players is in danger of reaching the end of their careers without lifting the game’s oldest trophy at its traditional venue.

Michael Monaghan, though, cautions against any assumption that the Rhinos will be the hungrier side. “It won’t be about who wants it more,” he said. “It will come down to who does what needs to be done to win.”

Leeds have the boost of the return of their captain Kevin Sinfield after his first sending-off and first suspension of his career. His availability means that the Rhinos will split the hooking duties between Paul Aiton and Rob Burrow, who will be facing up to Monaghan and the elusive Micky Higham. It is where an intriguing semi-final is likely to be won and lost.

In the following day’s semi-final between Castleford and Widnes at the Leigh Sports Village, Cas have already been struck by a potentially damaging blow.

Their volatile, barn-storming winger Justin Carney will miss the game after receiving one of his regular suspensions – two matches for punching in the draw at Hull. His team-mate Weller Hauraki is also banned for use of the knees in a tackle in the same match.

It could be enough to tilt matters in the direction of Widnes, the one-time “Cup Kings” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who have not been in a final since 1993.

Castleford have been the proverbial breath of fresh air this season, however, and have shown the ability to play without their main strike weapon when necessary.