Business as usual for Wigan as an era ends

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The Independent Online
Rugby League

Whatever ideas clubs might come up with to try to tag their Christmas paydays on to a summer season, today's Boxing Day fixtures are the last in the league and, in all probability, the last that can ever be said to mean anything.

There will be the bitter-sweet flavour of an era ending, therefore, at grounds like Headingley and Central Park, when a tradition almost as old as the game itself comes to a full stop.

For Wigan, though, it is very much business as usual. Even if they were to lose to St Helens today - and anything is possible on Boxing Day, as the last 100 years have demonstrated - they would still need only five points from their last four matches to win the Stones Centenary Championship, and that is assuming that Saints or Leeds win all their remaining games.

Wigan hope to have Shaun Edwards back after missing last Sunday's pre- festive hiccup at Oldham, but Kelvin Skerrett is likely to be missing, Gary Connolly has a suspect groin and Craig Murdock could be out for the rest of this transitional season with a hamstring injury.

The Wigan coach, Graeme West, believes that the astonishing defeat at Watersheddings has acted as a wake-up call to a side who were not playing well, reminding them that the title is not safe yet - not quite.

Saints' injury problems, however, make Wigan's pale into insignificance. Their coach, Eric Hughes, already knows that he will be without key players of the calibre of Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan, Chris Joynt and the suspended Bobbie Goulding. He has a number of other players struggling for fitness as well and it could be a very patched-up St Helens side that takes the field at Central Park.

Dean Bell's dissatisfaction with his Leeds squad has been shown over the last week by his approaches for the Batley scrum-half, Glen Tomlinson, and the Salford three-quarter, Nathan McEvoy.

An pounds 80,000 cash bid has failed to secure Tomlinson, however, and Salford were immune to the charms of an offer which would have seen highly experienced internationals like Alan Tait, Richie Eyres and Harvey Howard heading for The Willows.

For the present, Bell must make do with what he has, which, to most clubs, would look rather a lot. For the traditional morning kick-off against Castleford, he hopes to have the much-missed Garry Schofield and Tony Kemp back after injury, although both they and Marvin Golden face fitness tests.

Castleford had hoped to have Frano Botica fit to make his first appearance in their colours, but his progress in recovering from a particularly badly broken leg has not been quite rapid enough. He could be in contention by New Year. In the meantime, another New Zealander, Brendon Tuuta, could return after a seven-week absence. A former Castleford player, St John Ellis, is in line to make his debut for his new club, Halifax, against the Bradford Bulls, who allowed him to move the short distance between the two towns this weekend.

Ellis, aged 31, joined Bradford at the start of this campaign after returning from a season with the South Queensland Crushers, but his opportunities look limited now that the Bulls have acquired another goal-kicking winger, Paul Cook, from Leeds.

Ellis has initially joined Halifax for the remainder of the Centenary season, with a view to a longer-term deal.

In the other top division game today, Warrington could have three first- teamers available again after injury, in the shape of Gary Chambers, Kelly Shelford and Mark Forster, for their visit to Oldham.

The home side could have the rare luxury of fielding the same side that stunned Wigan nine days ago, with only their loose forward, Howard Hill - one of the notable successes among their younger players this season - the only doubtful starter.

In the First Division, Salford would tighten their grip on the top spot considerably if they could win at Widnes.

Although there have been repeated assurances that Paris will have their side ready for the start of Super League in March, the absence of any announcements on a coach or any players will keep hope alive for the winner of the division that they could be promoted to fill the void.