Feast of talent suggests thriller in prospect

Dave Hadfield previews the Challenge Cup final, which promises to bring some relief from recent off-field machinations
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The Independent Online
If ever the game needed a glittering showpiece, it has never been more so than at Wembley today. In the increasingly squalid cattle market into which the sport is degenerating, a reminder that it has a value transcending the Monopoly money being flung around would be particularly welcome.

By fortunate coincidence, there is every prospect of this afternoon's Silk Cut Challenge Cup final achieving just that. Wigan and Leeds are without doubt the best two sides in Britain, and events over the past year - and especially the last week - have brought both them, and the prospect of a great match, all the closer.

The Leeds coach, Doug Laughton, is making his 10th appearance at Wembley as a player or coach; one for every six and a half years that the final has been played there, as he has helpfully calculated.

The stage has surely never been better set for him. He wisely avoids saying so, but if a coach could choose his circumstances, they would undoubtedly be those of taking a side back to Wembley to meet the same team that beat them 12 months ago. He need tell them nothing by way of motivation or familiarisation.

Leeds are also a better team than they were last year. Their talented young players such as Graham Holroyd and Francis Cummins are a year older and wiser. Their senior citizens, such as Ellery Hanley and Alan Tait, show no signs of entering their dotage.

And as Wigan's coach, Gra-eme West, concedes: "They have bought well." That buying consists in the main of adding two forwards, Esene Faimalo and George Mann, who can make an explosive impact on a match.

The ability to mix and match his front row means that Laughton's forwards can be relied upon to go the distance, always a crucial consideration at Wembley. Harvey Howard, who will start the match in the front row with Faimalo, appreciates the difference that the reinforcements make. "It means that Esene and I can go 100 per cent, knowing that we will be able to get a rest and then come back," he said.

Unlike last year, Leeds have no injury worries, and they have also suffered less from potentially divisive bids and counter-bids for players' future services.

Negotiations with Hanley, Tait and Craig Innes - all wanted by the Australian Rugby League - will resume next week, but Leeds have done a better job of keeping the lid on a potentially disruptive situation than Wigan.

Virtually every Wigan player has toned up for the final this week by lifting a heavy cheque. The one highly significant exception is their captain, Shaun Edwards, who can hardly avoid being affected by the uncertainty over his future.

Edwards is a fiercely focused competitor - indeed, he and other Wigan players learnt much from Hanley in that regard during the Leeds captain's time at Central Park - but he has never gone into a big match with the unsettling feeling that the British game does not really want him.

West is adamant that his players have been able to set aside financial matters during their preparation. "There has been some talk about it, but once training has started they have been switched on," he said. "We know that we have to play to our absolute best, because only that will be good enough to beat Leeds."

West is trying to play down the historic significance of a Wigan defeat at Wembley, after seven successive wins. "If we play well but they play better and win, I won't go away with my tail between my legs," he insisted.

It could happen. This is the hardest, toughest Leeds team in recent memory, and there is little doubt this year about their big-match temperaments for Wembley.

And yet Wigan have demonstrated time and time again their ability to get it right on the big day. They have players such as Denis Betts and Phil Clarke, who, however much West might play it down, would hate to leave the club as Wembley losers, and in the final analysis, they have too many men capable of producing a match-winning moment of magic.

Martin Offiah has done so before, notably with a show- stopping try last year, and it would be a brave man who would bet against him scoring this year.

Va'aiga Tuigamala has gone from being a curiosity to a devastatingly effective rugby league player over the past year. Most of all there is Henry Paul, whose odds of 14-1 for the Lance Todd Trophy look uncharacteristically generous.

The dazzling New Zealander has, like most of his team-mates, taken the Murdoch shilling, but he is the perfect player to show Wembley that the game on the field can still consist of pure exhilaration, even if the machinations off it leave a nasty taste in the mouth. A flash of genius from him or some other kindred spirit could give the cup to Wigan by a point or two.

WEMBLEY TEAMS

LEEDS v WIGAN

Alan Tait 1 Henry Paul

Jim Fallon 2 Jason Robinson

Kevin Iro 3 Va'iga Tuigamala

Craig Innes 4 Gary Connolly

Francis Cummins 5 Martin Offiah

Garry Schofield 6 Frano Botica

Graham Holroyd 7 Shaun Edwards

Harvey Howard 8 Kelvin Skerrett

James Lowes 9 Martin Hall

Esene Faimalo 10 Neil Cowie

Gary Mercer 11 Denis Betts

Richie Eyres 12 Mick Cassidy

Ellery Hanley 13 Phil Clarke

Referee: R Smith (Castleford) Kick-off: 2.30 (BBC1)

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