Smith and Wolves eye double
Warrington coach Tony Smith is convinced his side now have what it takes to complete the elusive double.
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The Wolves go into Saturday's Super League qualifying play-off tie against St Helens aiming to become the first team to win both the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup in the same season since Saints achieved the feat in 2006.
The task proved beyond Smith's men in both 2009 and 2010 when they won the Cup only to fare miserably in the Grand Final series and last year's semi-final defeat by Leeds left them with a paltry play-off record of seven defeats from nine matches.
However, Smith believes his 2012 Cup-winning team are better prepared to secure a maiden Old Trafford appearance, thanks largely to the contributions of his close-season recruits Stefan Ratchford and Chris Hill.
Former Leigh prop Hill has proved to be one of the finds of the season, consistently outperforming experienced front-rowers Adrian Morley, Garreth Carvell and Paul Wood, while the multi-talented Ratchford has provided valuable cover for veterans Brett Hodgson and Lee Briers at full-back and stand-off respectively and has also filled in at centre and scrum-half when required.
"We're certainly in better shape and we've certainly got more depth in our squad," Smith said.
"The recruitment of Ratchford has helped us enormously in terms of being able to relieve very well Hodgson, Briers, (Richie) Myler and (Chris) Bridge.
"Hill has also been tremendous in helping us not to have to play Morley or Carvell or Wood or some of those more experienced front rowers every week."
Hill has started all but four of Warrington's last 23 matches after making a seamless step up from part-time rugby to earn a place in the Super League Dream Team and Smith believes he can go all the way to the top.
"I knew we were getting a good player but to do what he's done in his first year is pretty special," he said.
"It shows what a terrific player he is and I've got no doubt he's here to stay.
"Some young blokes come on the scene and make a splash for one year and then die off but I think he's one of those players who is going to get better and better as he gets older because he's got a great desire to succeed."
While Ratchford and Hill keep their places for the clash with St Helens, Smith will also field virtually all his big guns, despite having the safety net of another play-off tie for the losers.
Smith has rotated his squad all year to give his senior players rest at crucial times but England second rower Ben Westwood and loose forward Ben Harrison will be their only absentees on Saturday.
"It is a must-win game for us," Smith said. "We've been playing all year to get into form for the finals.
"We picked on form for the Challenge Cup final and we'll be picking on form from here on in.
"We've only a few weeks left in the competition and it will be full on from here unless we need to take care of somebody who is a risk.
"We certainly won't risk anybody in a game that could have an adverse effect on the outcome."
Smith twice guided Leeds to Grand-Final glory but he can only look on with envy at the consistency of St Helens, who are hoping to reach Old Trafford for a seventh consecutive season.
Saints' caretaker coach Mike Rush is out to succeed where his most recent predecessors, Royce Simmons and Mick Potter, both failed by helping them lift the trophy for the first time since the club's 2006 triumph but he is aware of the size of his task.
"We're a good side but two sides have finished above us that hold some bragging rights," Rush said.
"I do think Super League standards have gone up in recent years and we're going to have to be very good to get there.
"But we have got some experience of getting there and hopefully we can draw on that. We're going to have to win two, if not three, massive games."
A year ago St Helens won at Wigan to earn themselves a path straight through to the semi-finals and Rush would love a repeat.
"You'd rather win it and get that weekend off," he said. "It would enable us to give players a little bit of a rest.
"If it doesn't go our way, the hard work you put in during season gets you a second bite of the cherry so there is a little bit of comfort I suppose if we need it."