Challenge Cup: Robbie Hunter-Paul's pain and glory in the cup showpiece

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Bobbie’s brilliance blows away Bulls

In World Cup finals, Super League Grand Finals and World Club Challenges, Robbie Hunter-Paul has tasted the very peaks of elite competition across the rugby league board.

Yet, it is perhaps with the Challenge Cup in which he enjoys the most special bond.

He was the first scorer of a hat-trick in a final, one of a select band of losing Lance Todd Trophy winners, and also experienced the joy of captaining a side to the trophy.

Two of the showpieces the former New Zealand international graced – 1996 and 2003 – will feature among five classic finals from five decades in a special BBC One programme on on Saturday (13:15 BST).

Here Hunter-Paul, now 44, looks back at some of the highlights, and lowlights, from his six Challenge Cup finals.

The pain – 1996: Bradford Bulls v St Helens

Bradford’s first Challenge Cup appearance in 23 years was Hunter-Paul’s maiden outing, at the age of 20.

Nearly 80,000 fans congregated at Wembley Stadium for the centenary final between Super League champions elect St Helens, and the resurgent Bulls.

Robbie Hunter-Paul: “I don’t know if it was a mixture of my imagination, being overwhelmed by the occasion and the heat, but standing in the tunnel I looked at the mouth out into the bowl and it was just – ‘energy’. It was like a forcefield there.

“The atmosphere started to thicken, every step the noise got louder and louder, every step I took towards it my legs got heavier. Both teams walked out at the same time, and those 80,000 people lost their minds. All that atmosphere, energy and noise rolled down off the terraces and slammed into me at a million miles an hour.

“I could feel my heart trying to burst out of my shirt, I had adrenaline coursing through me and a feeling of electricity across my arms. It’s the most euphoric thing I’ve ever felt in my life, and yet also a frightening experience.”

Hunter-Paul’s appearance that day belied his tender years, as a masterful display saw him run in a hat-trick, albeit in a thrilling 40-32 defeat.

He was everywhere, popping up at first receiver to crash into the line, side-stepping at pace to carve up the Saints defence and dashing over to score.

Brian Smith’s Bulls had led 26-12 with almost an hour gone, but Saints – inspired by captain Bobbie Goulding’s devastating kicking game – roared back to take the trophy, and Kiwi international Hunter-Paul was left with a bittersweet haul.

RHP: “I got all the accolades, I was the youngest captain, I was man of the match, I got the £10,000 which became £5,000 for the three tries, but I’d give back all of those titles for a winners medal.

“It was so organic, I’ve very rarely played 80 minutes like that, it was hard to live up to. You know when you are in the zone, you don’t think, you just play. I was part of the dance.

“The sponsors had put up £10,000 for anyone who could achieve the hat-trick feat. Brian [Smith] said to me, “we’ve got a problem”, the prize was becoming a distraction. So I squashed it by coming up with an idea to share it. If anyone did it, they keep £5,000 and give the other £5,000 to the team.

“It was the hardest cheque I’d ever written, held up against the wall in Tenerife at the end of the year. I knew what was happening to that £5,000. I was more sick about writing the cheque than I was about losing that game.

“Although I’ve moved on, I’ve lifted the cup, enjoyed so many wonderful experiences, success internationally and domestically level, that [1996 game] is a bag of bricks I’ve struggled to put down the entirety of my life.

“Sometimes that bag feels heavy, and I’ll replay certain moments of that game in my mind. I’ve had a brilliant game, but made a lot of mistakes, so I can’t watch that game now. It’s all what ifs.”

The glory – 2000-2003: Bradford finally take the spoils

Having lost the following season again to St Helens in 1997, it would be another three years until Bradford and Hunter-Paul had the opportunity to banish their disappointment.

Redemption came at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium in 2000, with a 24-18 victory over holders and fierce rivals Leeds Rhinos in soggy conditions – with all but two of the Bulls players having never won a final.

This time it was brother Henry Paul who took the applause and the man of the match award for a merciless kicking torment of Leeds winger Leroy Rivett, but it was Hunter-Paul who strode along to hoist the trophy aloft and banish the curse.

RHP: “Winning that trophy was the big thing, the blip in our silverware, getting that monkey off our back. That broke the duck. In 2000 we had a complete team, Jimmy Lowes at the top of his game, Henry, Brian McDermott, Paul Anderson, Stuart Fielden, a young Jamie Peacock. That game taught us how to win.

“I wanted to walk up those stairs and get that beautiful trophy. I spoke to Bernard Dwyer after the game, it was his sixth final and he’d finally won one, and I offered him the chance to go up and collect it.

“It’s a measure of the man that he said ‘No, you’re our captain, it’s enough for me just to win.'”

Tevita Vaikona and Robbie Hunter-Paul celebrate after Bradford’s 2003 triumph

With the drought ended, Bradford enjoyed great success throughout the next six years.

Three Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge wins were the mark of their achievement.

Although defeat – by Saints again – in the 2001 final denied the Bulls the chance to retain the cup, they were back in the final again in 2003 – this time at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.

Leeds were again vanquished, but it took a massive defensive effort to quell the Rhinos’ fightback as Bradford held on to win 22-20.

RHP: “It takes a special type of mongrel to win in do-or-die football. Winning play-off rugby league takes a different type of mindset, it’s a superior mindset.

“Come the 2003 cup final, it was Jimmy Lowes’ last year, he was retiring, and I said to him – you’ve got to lead us up.

“It was under the closed roof at Cardiff, where we held on for the last 20 minutes, and he’d played awesome.

“He dug deep when we were hanging on, so it wasn’t a question – it was a statement. It was a way for me to say thank you.”

Hunter-Paul moved on from Bradford in the aftermath of their 2005 Super League title, ending his association with the club who he joined aged just 18.

He joined Huddersfield in 2006, when he added another Challenge Cup final appearance to his record, a 42-12 defeat by St Helens – his cup final bogey side – at Twickenham.

It was his last Challenge Cup final experience, taking his tally to six. Those outings had shaped his career, put him in the spotlight and drove him on to become the player of his promise.

RHP: “Fear is a much stickier motivation than success is. If euphoria stuck around too long, we’d never get anything done. We’d just be basking in the glow.

“When we lost a final, the weight was on our shoulders all off-season and pre-season, you couldn’t wait to get back out there.

“But the euphoria of winning and success lasted only as long as ‘Mad Monday’. Saturday, Sunday and Mad Monday, a hangover to get over and then you’re over it.

“The 1996 and 1997 cup final disappointments motivated everything to come for the rest of my career.”



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