Favourites Widnes take on Barrow in the Northern Rail Cup Final at Blackpool on Sunday looking for their second victory in three years.
The Vikings have suffered two defeats against the Raiders already this season – 12-4 at Craven Park in the group stages of the NRC and 27-6 at the Stobart Stadium in the Championship – but go in to the game as favourites following their recent upturn in form which has seen impressive victories over Featherstone, Halifax and Doncaster.
Barrow have stuttered recently, suffering a heavy defeat at Batley and a loss away at Halifax sandwiched in between narrow victories over Toulouse, Featherstone and Dewsbury.
The Raiders have a number of injury worries ahead of the game and will also be without on-loan stand-off Jamie Rooney and forward Ned Catic, who was banned for two games by the RFL earlier this week following his red card against Batley a fortnight ago.
Half-backs Darren Holt and Liam Finch and forwards Jamie Butler and Martin Ostler face fitness tests ahead of the final, which kicks off at 5.15pm, but it remains to be seen whether these injuries are just mind-games being played by the Cumbrians.
Barrow have been sent a goodwill message by local MP John Hutton.
He said: “I would like to wish Barrow Raiders good luck in their Northern Rail Cup final against Widnes Vikings. The Raiders are going places these days and their success gives everyone a lift. I hope they repel the Vikings and come back with the silverware.”
Widnes have a virtually full-strength side for almost the first time this season and are expected to include centre Craig Hall, who is currently on a week-to-week loan from Hull. Fellow loanee Jon Grayshon has returned to Harlequins, while forward Sam Thompson is unlikely to be considered for selection despite returning to the club from the capital this week.
Paul Cullen will welcome back James Webster, Iain Morrison and Jim Gannon after they were all rested for last weekend’s win over Doncaster, and the Vikings will be looking to carry on the form that saw them defeat Halifax 27-22 at The Shay in a thrilling semi-final.
Vikings half-back John Duffy is set to make his fourth appearance in the final, and will be looking for his second victory, having suffered defeat twice – with Leigh in 2003 and with Whitehaven in 2007, ironically against Widnes. He won the trophy with Leigh in 2004.
The winner of the match will tick the first box when it comes to applying for a Super League licence in 2012 – and Widnes have made no secret of their aims in that regard.
Coach Cullen said: “We’ve been working hard this week to keep everything on an even keel and not to get over-excited.
“From looking at our last four games and wins, it seems that we are getting our preparation right now in time for game day.
“It’s all about one game this weekend and win or lose we’re still a long way a way from where we want to be yet.
“I think that the game will be won and lost in the middle six like it was against Halifax and so that will play a major factor in the team that I pick.
“We have to stick to our game plan, as I can ball and shout all I want but its the players who have to take the responsibility
“Barrow don’t care about us and our Super League aspirations and they gave us a good hiding in front of our own fans earlier this year.
“They looked six foot two and bullet proof when they came here and the dark hearts of rugby league got amongst our players and rattled them.”
The game looks set to break the competition record for a final, which currently stands at 9,400, set in the 2005 final between Hull KR and Castleford. Salford won the competition last season, defeating Doncaster 60-0 and then became the first club to win both the NRC and the National League 1 Grand Final in the same season.
Widnes won the competition in 2007 with a 54-6 win over Whitehaven, and a win would see them join Leigh as the only clubs to win the competition twice.
The game kicks off at 5.15pm at Bloomfield Road and is live on Sky Sports 2.