RUGBY LEAGUE: Return of Betts cheers Wigan

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The Independent Online
AS CLUBS go back to the good old, bad old days of a double programme of Bank Holiday fixtures, it is Wigan, who stage Central Park's last ever Good Friday derby against St Helens today, who have the reinforcements grouping on the horizon.

Games on either side of the weekend will test the depth and quality of squads, but Wigan have the boost of having Denis Betts ready to return against Wakefield on Monday. The Great Britain second-rower, out since rupturing a knee last season, has come safely through 20 minutes of a reserve game against Saints. With Tony Smith also waiting in the wings, Wigan are growing in strength over Easter.

The same, however, cannot be said of Saints, who have something of a forward crisis building up. Vila Matautia and Chris Joynt are both likely to miss today's noon kick-off, along with Paul Davidson, who is suspended, and the out of favour Phil Adamson, who has injured a hand in the reserves. Although Ellery Hanley is playing his cards closer to his chest than ever for his return to a ground where he was a legend as a player, the young forwards Andy Leathem and Tim Jonkers are likely to play a part.

Today is the first test for the heightened profile the London Broncos hope to gain from qualifying for Wembley last weekend. The club reports long queues for Cup final tickets, but maximising the benefit from their achievement depends on maintaining their form between now and the start of May. The only unbeaten side in Britain entertain Hull today and the London coach, Dan Stains, calls it "a real test of our mental toughness in putting aside the emotion of last weekend's result".

Matt Salter will start in place of another Londoner, Dominic Peters, with Shane Millard moving to the second row, while Ady Spencer and Glen Air could be fit to return via the bench, from which Anthony Seibold could make his first appearance for the club.

It is also a highly significant day for the Gateshead Thunder. After losing two opening matches, against Leeds and St Helens, that they could not have been seriously expected to win, the visit of Wakefield is a match in which they must perform convincingly if they are to start building their credibility in the North-east. Deon Bird is out injured and David Maiden, a Queenslander from Cairns with real pace at his disposal, will make his debut for the Thunder.

Salford, whose latest crisis was precipitated by defeat at Wakefield two weeks ago, field a much-changed team at home to Warrington. Martin Crompton is dropped in favour of Carl Briggs at scrum-half, winger Mark Johnson is also left out and Hudson Smith is injured. With club disciplinary measures still hanging over him, a bad defeat could leave the Salford coach, Andy Gregory, on even thinner ice.

Castleford must get over the disappointment of their semi-final defeat when Halifax visit tonight, while Sheffield and Huddersfield will both be seeking their first points of the season at the Don Valley Stadium.

New Zealand are insisting that Richie Blackmore, who missed Leeds' game at Bradford last night with a recurrence of his groin injury, must play for them in their Test in Sydney eight days before the Challenge Cup final.

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