Hull to defend cup like 'proud champions'

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The Independent Online

The road to Twickenham - now that it has finally been confirmed as the venue for the 2006 Challenge Cup final - starts for the holders, Hull, at Odsal today and, on current form, will end there.

Hull won the Cup at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last August, but their form in the Super League so far gives no grounds for confidence that they can retain it. They have lost four of their last five games, including a record 46-0 thrashing at home by St Helens last weekend.

One of their better performances, though, was a six-point defeat by Bradford three weeks ago - a match Hull could well have won. Their coach, John Kear, now hopes they will draw inspiration from that performance as well as from still having the game's oldest trophy still on their mantelpiece.

"We aim to defend the Challenge Cup like proud champions," he said. "It took a heck of a lot of winning and we want to make it very, very difficult for anyone to take it away from us.

"Our performance at Bradford was just about our best of the season and we can draw a lot from that. We put ourselves in a position to win the game, even though we didn't quite do it."

Kear will have Kirk Yeaman back in the centre after missing last week to be at the birth of his son. Nathan Blacklock is the player likely to lose his place after a substandard display against St Helens.

Bradford, beaten by Hull on their Cup run last year, will have Paul Deacon back at scrum-half after a one-week absence for facial surgery.

Today's other ties feature some unfamiliar Challenge Cup names. The new professional club in Wales, the Celtic Crusaders, are unbeaten in the Northern Rail Cup, but face a step up in class when they travel to Rochdale Hornets.

The only amateurs left in the competition, Thornhill Trojans, will end their Cup adventures in France, where they play the Catalans Dragons.

The pick of tomorrow's matches is undoubtedly at Wakefield, where the visit of Wigan brings Super League's bottom two clubs together, with each hoping that the Cup can kick-start their season.

Trinity will still be without David Solomona - the subject of interest from Wigan this week - and Ben Jeffries, while Tom Saxton, whose loan signing from Hull has now been made permanent, has a back injury.

With Danny Orr injured and Tim Jonkers and Oliver Wilkes Cup-tied, the 18-year-old forward, Eamon O'Carroll, becomes yet another Wigan youngster to be thrown in at the deep end.

If any Super League club is in danger of being knocked out by lower division opposition, it is surely Castleford at Widnes, the team they replaced in the top flight.