Rugby League: Eagles wary of Wigan's cup backlash

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BY THE strange serendipity that attends fixtures lists, today's meeting between Sheffield Eagles and Wigan provides a classic case study in how two sides will react to the biggest Wembley upset of recent times.

Just seven days after Sheffield won the Silk Cut Challenge Cup, they face their vanquished Wembley opponents, Wigan, in the Super League. Who says that computers do not have a sense of humour?

The joke for Sheffield is that they are now expected to do what they refused to do at Wembley by succumbing to Wigan's might, not to mention their wounded pride.

"It's bound to be a bit special for them," said the Sheffield coach, John Kear. "But don't forget that it's a special day for us as well."

Sheffield have two ambitions. One is to attract a decent crowd to the Don Valley Stadium to celebrate last week's success; the other is to demonstrate that it was no fluke. Kear can add the cup-tied Steve Molloy to his Wembley squad and his only slight doubt concerns Dave Watson, who has a calf strain that saw him substituted late in the final after a fine individual contribution.

What is hard to quantify is how the Eagles will respond to their week of unfamiliar adulation and media attention. Their post-Wembley party went on as long as you would expect of such a convivial club and when Mark Aston collected his Lance Todd Trophy on Wednesday night, his acceptance speech was delivered in a croaky whisper: "I won't be able to call many moves," he admitted. "I've lost my voice with all the interviews."

After all this, and a civic reception last night, is it realistic to expect him and his team-mates to produce the game of a lifetime twice in a week? Probably not, but then it was never realistic to expect them to win at Wembley.

It has also been an interesting week at Wigan. Defeat in a major final was a new experience for many of their players, just as losing at Wembley was for most of their supporters. There's been a good deal of soul-searching at the club, tempered by a determination not to over-react to what is, after all, just one result.

"I've never said that we were going to go through the season undefeated," said their coach John Monie. "We'll win a lot of battles this year, but some we won't win."

The club held a meeting to plan future recruitment this weekend, but that does not denote a panic over the current strength of the squad. Indeed, Monie has specifically ruled out the move for the St Helens hooker, Keiron Cunningham, that has been rumoured for months.

Monie should limit his changes today to one that he was already considering before Wembley, going into the game with three rather than four props. On reflection, he feels that with two extra props on the bench none of his front rowers gets enough rugby to bring out his best.

You could argue that that showed through at Wembley. Terry O'Connor is the man likely to miss out, with the utility back Paul Johnson coming into the squad. It is a minor alteration, but Monie and Wigan will be looking for a major improvement.