Featherstone fired up to gatecrash

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Challenge Cup semi-finals are always psychological battles, and today's between Featherstone Rovers and Leeds is more of a mind game than most. Featherstone thrive on a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality and that feeling is never stronger than when they meet the bloated plutocrats from the big city up the road.

The sense of pre-ordination pointing to a repeat of last year's Wigan- Leeds final casts Rovers in the role of gatecrashers at the party. They are well-equipped to crash through a few gates. Under David Ward, whose sacking as Leeds coach in 1991 is just one of the ingredients that adds spice at Elland Road this afternoon, Featherstone have settled into impressive form, with eight wins in their last nine matches contrasting vividly with the run of nine defeats that preceded them.

Their captain and prop forward, Steve Molloy, is another Leeds discard with extra incentive and, in Matt Calland and Brendon Tuuta, they have two of the most uncompromisingly physical backs in the business.

Both last summer's major signings have come good under Ward. Daniel Divet seems to have settled his differences with the club and Mark Aston, a disappointment early in the season, has recovered his confidence.

Rovers' collective confidence has been boosted as much by Leeds' recent form as by their own successes. For sides to lose sight of the job in hand when Wembley beckons is an annual syndrome; to do so when second in the table and bidding for the championship betrays a continuing brittleness of temperament that has been noted with interest at Post Office Road.

Even in victory at Bradford last week, Leeds looked sluggish and rugby league history is full of teams "saving themselves" and then failing to produce the goods in the match they have been saving themselves for.

And yet this Leeds side is full of potential match-winners. The fact that Kevin Iro has been off the boil makes him all the more dangerous today and his combination with Craig Innes in the centres is a major threat. Featherstone could also struggle to contain Alan Tait and Ellery Hanley, who is now within two tries of the all-time record for a forward in a season.

Their status as the underdogs means that most neutrals will be urging on Rovers this afternoon. That sentimental support will be tempered by one doubt. Leeds, with their proven big-match performers and their experience last year, could conceivably give Wigan a game at Wembley. Could Featherstone?

Wigan, meanwhile, try to repair the minor damage to their championship prospects of their defeat at Halifax on Wednesday when they meet them again tomorrow. "We can expect a backlash," said the Halifax stand-off, Michael Hagan, who has decided to retire and return to Australia at the end of the season.

Leeds: Tait; Fallon, Iro, Innes, Cummins; Schofield, Holroyd; Howard, Lowes, Faimalo, Mercer, Eyres, Hanley. Substitutes: Mann, Harmon.

Featherstone Rovers: Gibson; Butt, Rodger, Calland, Hughes; Tuuta, Aston; Molloy, Southernwood, Casey, Divet, G H Price, Roebuck. Substitutes: Nixon, Nadiole.

Referee: D Campbell (Widnes).