Cool coaches ready for final's new era

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However hot it gets at Wembley this afternoon for the Challenge Cup final there will be a blast of fresh air blowing through the stadium, writes Dave Hadfield.

No disrespect to Wigan, whose achievements in winning eight in a row will eventually be seen as the miracle it was, but it will be a pleasant change to walk down Wembley Way without thinking that it will take a miracle to beat them.

Both St Helens and Bradford Bulls have the quality, on and off the field, to claim the first cup of the post-Wigan era.

Much, especially if today is as clammy as yesterday, will depend on how two cool and clever coaches perm their resources and use their substitutes.

Saints' Shaun McRae completed his line-up yesterday by giving Ian Pickavance the nod ahead of young Chris Morley for the one remaining berth on the bench.

When you throw impact players like Alan Hunte, Tommy Martyn and Vila Matautia into the equation, Saints have enviable strike power off the bench.

"If it's as warm as this, the six changes we can make will be a very big factor," said McRae, who has never lost as Saints' coach but has experienced Wembley defeat twice as assistant coach with Australia.

The Bulls' Brian Smith was playing his cards a little closer to his chest, delaying reducing his six potential substitutes to the requisite four until this morning.

He was adamant, though, that his selection of Jon Hamer in the front row for his first match in the first team since early January is no bluff, whatever McRae might say about it.

"What Shaun has had to say about his selection has done Jon Hamer no harm at all," Smith said. "He doesn't need firing up. He knows what he has got to do and that he will not be required for the full 80 minutes."

McRae's scepticism about his participation has brought Hamer some good natured ribbing from his team-mates this week. "They keep telling him to get off the bus because he isn't playing," Smith said.

"Brian's told me I'm starting and that's good enough for me," said the player himself. "I'm delighted but, I must admit, a bit surprised as well."

Forwards of Hamer's age and physique will find it hard going today in what could be the epitome of the fast, flowing style of rugby that is becoming increasingly the norm.

Saints, you have to suspect, are just that little bit better equipped for that type of game. Their threequarter line oozes pace and quality, their captain, Bobbie Goulding, has been the most influential player in the opening weeks of Super League and in Apollo Perelini and the dynamic young Keiron Cunningham they have forwards who are the current state of the art in their respective roles.

Bradford, who will be led out by their long-serving former player and assistant coach, Brian Noble, are still in a state of transition. In his few months there, Smith has dismantled one side and rebuilt it in his own image of how the game now needs to be played. He has a lingering suspicion, perhaps, that this particular challenge has come just a little too early in that rebuilding process.

But, as they showed in their semi-final victory over Leeds, they are already capable of startlingly inventive and effective rugby, especially when their 20-year-old captain, Robbie Paul, plays to his true ability.

Spare a thought this afternoon for the Wigan captain, Shaun Edwards, a man who has had this weekend ringed in red in his diary for the last eight years. He plans to go shopping, but will record the match to watch later.

What he is likely to see then is his great rival, Goulding, lifting the Challenge Cup for Saints for the first time in 20 years, but only after Bradford do enough to make it a close and compelling final which could well be decided by a latecomer to the action.


at Wembley Stadium

1 Prescott 10 Graham

14 Arnold 7 Cook

3 Gibbs 20 Calland

4 Newlove 24 Loughlin

5 Sullivan 5 Scales

6 Hammond 3 Bradley

7 Goulding, capt 1 Paul, capt

8 Perelini 22 McDermott

9 Cunningham 23 Dwyer

17 Leathem 19 Hamer

11 Joynt 13 Nickle

12 Booth 11 Donougher

23 Northey 18 Knox

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes) Kick-off: 2.30 (BBC1)