OLLY Russell admitted to having sleepless nights before Huddersfield Giants’ appearance in the final of rugby league’s Challenge Cup.
The 23-year-old scrum half, from Springhead, feared he would miss the biggest game of his short career through injury.
Russell picked up a hamstring strain in the Betfred Super League match against Toulouse the week before the final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
And the former Knowsley Primary and Saddleworth School student relived the anguish of being injured so close to the final.
“I had a scan on the Monday before the final on Saturday which revealed a Grade 1B injury which was more of a scrape – had it been IC, I would have been ruled out – and the physio said I had a chance for weekend,” he said.
“It was a scary start to the week not knowing if I would be fit so that made the build up to the game not as enjoyable as I would have liked.”
Russell revealed the extraordinary efforts he made not to miss Giants’ big day.
He said: “I iced my hamstring for 20 minutes of every hour I was awake every day during the week – that’s a lot of ice.
“I had a few sleepless nights at the back end of the week as the game got closer.
“Once I travelled to London on the Thursday and knew I would be playing, it was unreal.
“I went on a team run the day before the match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and my hamstring was fine. I knew I could play, so from that moment I enjoyed the build-up.”
However, it was decided Russell, usually the goalkicker, would hand over those duties on the day.
“I am left footed, and the injury was to my right hamstring which would have put pressure on it had I kicked,” he explained.
Apart from the result – Giants lost 16-14 to Wigan Warriors who snatched victory
late on – Russell described as a magical day.
He said: “The experience and the day was what any young lad like me would have dreamed of, apart from the result which was heartbreaking to lose with three minutes to go.
“I am only 23 years of age and hopefully this will be the first of many finals – I want a winners’ medal.”
Russell was not too upset that the final was switched from Wembley which was being used for football’s play-off finals.
He said: “I was a little disappointed as it was not at Wembley, but this final will be remembered as a one-off at Spurs.
“There were negatives and positives, pros and cons, as this will possibly the only final every to be played there.”
Russell described it as the best stadium he has played at, and the experience was enhanced by them having the luxurious home dressing room.
“I have played in Magic Weekend games at Anfield and St James’ Park, but this was a different level to those stadiums,” he continued.
Russell, who played his junior rugby for Oldham St Annes, joined Wigan Warriors as an academy player before moving to Giants midway through his second academy season.
And he described head coach Ian Watson as being pivotal to his development.
He said: “Ian has been a massive influence on my career as, under him, I have cemented a regular starting spot this season for the first time.
“I need that experience and I feel I am improving every week by playing in high-pressure situations has been massive.”
Delph-based Joe Greenwood was a second Saddleworth player in Giants’ line-up.
It was a first Challenge Cup final for the 29-year-old second row forward, despite his wealth of previous experience with St Helens and Wigan Warriors.
Greenwood, who was raised on the family farm at Austerlands, was following in the footsteps of older brother James who played in the 2020 Challenge Cup final for Salford Red Devils who lost to Leeds Rhinos.
Greenwood, who had reached the semi-final while at St Helens, said: “I had always wanted to play in the cup final and it was great to be part of the experience.
“The only disappointment was the result. We have to dust ourselves down as we want to get into the play-offs and play in other finals.”
Greenwood, who began his playing days at Saddleworth Rangers, added Giants’ players did not want to get “caught up” in the build-up to the final and lose their focus on the game.
He added brother James was unable to provide any pointers from his cup-final experience when he scored a try in a 17-16 defeat in one of the most exciting finals of the modern era.
“James said he could not give me any advice as his final was during lockdown and there were no fans there, so it was not like a cup final being in an empty stadium,” he explained.
Greenwood added his abiding memories are of the state-of-the-art stadium and the amazing atmosphere saying it felt as though the fans were on top of the players.
He was also impressed with the facilities, saying: “It was an unbelievable stadium, brand new and incredible.
“Our changing room had its own gym and ice baths – what a difference there is between football and rugby.”
Greenwood, who also had a spell in the NRL with Gold Coast Titans, described Watson as the best English coach in rugby league adding he has “brought on my game massively”.
He said: “Ian is one of the best coaches I have played under and lives and breathes the game.
“He is one of the top coaches in the game tactically and is up there with the top ones in terms of man management.
“If he ever goes to the NRL, I am sure he would succeed as also the case if he ever got a shot of coaching England.”
Saddleworth could well have had a third player in cup-final action, but former Waterhead Warriors player Nathan Mason was not selected.