Familiar foe bars Leeds' route to Grand hat-trick

The holders are favourites in today's final but Saints will be more fired up than usual
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For Leeds it used to be Bradford. For St Helens it was, of course, Wigan. Now, however, the side both want to beat most is each other.

The intensity of the rivalry between easily the best two teams in Super League is one extra reason for relishing the confrontation in today's Grand Final. It is the third year in a row that they have contested the season's ultimate prize and Leeds have won the previous two.

The Rhinos were the underdogs for both of those games; this year, deservedly, they are clear favourites. Since a tricky patch in April, they have been by far the more convincing side. Their semi-final win over the Catalan Dragons by no means showed them at their best, but for 15 minutes they were irresistible.

"We know we've got strike power, we know we can score tries," said their coach, Brian McClennan, after that display. Saints, on the other hand, are in the middle of a relative, but quite uncharacteristic, drought. They are finding tries hard to come by and their victory over Wigan last time out was mainly the product of some grimly determined defence.

Some of the best of that defence came from Sean Long, who was also their attacking mainspring and will need to be again today in his last game for them. All the signs are that Long is already regretting his decision to leave for a two-year contract at Hull, so there could be an extra layer of emotion for him this evening. Lee Gilmour, who is also leaving, has had a more transient career and will be more matter-of-fact about his farewells, but he too could be important.

Leeds also have a player saying his goodbyes in Lee Smith, man of the match in the equivalent game last year, but now seduced by rugby union. He is highly enough thought of for Tony Smith to be considering using him in the Four Nations a matter of days before he switches code.

Another to watch closely, though, is Leeds' left-winger Ryan Hall. Partly thanks to the service he has received from the veteran centre Keith Senior, he has been by far the most potent try-scorer in Super League this season.

And yet it is not flowing backline moves to which fans, committed or neutral, will be primarily looking forward. They will be waiting for war to break out between two teams whose dislike for each other often seems to go beyond normal rivalry. If there is one man who typifies this enmity it is Saints' James Graham, with his cliché-perfect flame hair and his one-man mission to mix it with anyone in blue and amber.

Both sides will have been told by their coaches that the team that loses control of their emotions will be the one going home without that ugly but much-strived for lump of metal that is the Super League Trophy.

Logic says that Leeds will get their hands on it for an unprecedented third year in a row, but logic is usually wrong.

The old hands No substitute for Grand Final experience

Matt Diskin: 'I'll play in any role that the team needs'

Matt Diskin will run out for Leeds at Old Trafford on Saturday wearing a shirt that he has frankly admitted detesting. His problem is not with the familiar blue and amber design, the Rhinos' badge or even the sponsors' logo. It's that No 14 on his back that he hates.

Diskin was Leeds' first-choice hooker and shared the general surprise when they used one of their precious import spots to sign another specialist in the position a year ago. Not only that, but Danny Buderus was an Australia international widely considered the world's best. A season of shuttling to and from the substitutes' bench beckoned.

"Any player worth his salt wants as much game-time as possible. When you've worked for years to get a starting number, you don't like to lose it," he says now, but claims to have quickly come to terms with the snub.

"I was being asked to play a different role for the team and it was one that I enjoyed. I struck up a good relationship with Danny," he says.

In the event, his days of playing second fiddle were short-lived. Injuries have limited Buderus to nine starts this season and he has not played since the end of July.

That has left Diskin to reclaim his old role as number one at No 9, which he has done to great effect as the Rhinos swept to the verge of retaining their Super League title for a third year.

"The role I was playing before has left me fresher than I would have been," he says. That is just as well, because with no hooking back-up on the bench he has to put in more game-time than ever.

"That's true, but we do have plenty of players like Rob Burrow and Brent Webb, who can jump in there and give me a break."

Diskin is adamant that rumours of his disillusionment and desire to move elsewhere earlier in the season were without foundation. "I've got another year on my contract and I love it here. There's no way I wanted to leave. I've got a testimonial next year and that's something I'm very proud of."

The Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield said this week that one of the reasons for their success is the nucleus of players, like himself, Burrow, Danny McGuire and Diskin, who came through the ranks together and have stuck together ever since.

All of them could have earned more money elsewhere, but preferred to stay and play with their mates.

Events at Old Trafford five years ago played a crucial role in binding that generation of players together, probably for the duration of their careers.

That was the year when Leeds beat their neighbours and rivals from Bradford 16-8 to win their first title for 32 years, with Diskin taking the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match. Unfortunately, he can remember little about it. "It's all a bit of a blur. It was a fantastic experience, but the emotion and the adrenalin take over when you're in the middle of it.

"Tony Smith came as coach at the right time, got his hands on a lot of players who had been developing together and gave us the structure we needed to win things," he says.

Diskin's performance that day also earned him a Great Britain place and he now longs to revive his international career after being ignored by Smith, as England coach, for last year's hugely disappointing World Cup.

"Nobody said anything to me about that, but I'd love to get back into the Test side." He wouldn't even mind wearing that accursed No 14.

"I'll play whatever role the team needs from me," he says. "That's Leeds – there isn't a single selfish player here."

Paul Wellens: 'Bad memories are always the most vivid'

Few players can have felt the range of emotions at one venue that Paul Wellens has experienced at Old Trafford. The St Helens full-back, who plays his seventh Grand Final today, has run the gamut, since Ellery Hanley gave him a surprise call-up 10 years ago.

Since then he has won and lost there, been injured, been the winner of the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match and been substituted. Freshest in his mind, though, are the defeats by Leeds in the last two years. "It's strange really, that the bad memories are always the most vivid," he says. "Those two defeats really hurt."

Students of relations between the two clubs might be tempted to conclude that what really hurts the most is losing against Leeds. Although reports of cliques from the two clubs being daggers drawn during last year's World Cup were, in Wellens' words "slightly exaggerated," there is no doubt that they irritate the hell out of each other on the pitch.

This season's meetings between them have had a raw edge of mutual hostility that contributes to the anticipation surrounding this match. "I don't think there's anything unusual about it," says Wellens. "It's a reaction to the way we've played each other in so many big games and neither of us can win everything.

"Beyond that, it's a case of mutual respect between two fiercely competitive teams."

Does he have any friends in the Leeds team, though, in the way one might expect in a close-knit sport like rugby league? No he doesn't, not in the sense of people he phones up and mixes with socially. "But I've got a lot of respect for Jamie Peacock and I get on OK with the rest of them."

If the intensity of the rivalry with the Rhinos is one element that makes this a special Grand Final for Wellens, then so is the impending departure from Saints' ranks of two players he certainly does count as close friends.

Like him, Sean Long and Lee Gilmour have played six times in the big occasion at Old Trafford, but are both off to new clubs for next season. Trying to give team-mates like them an appropriate send-off is one of the emotional levers that players use.

"Longy's just a great character, just fun to be around," he says. "He's also the ultimate big-match player, because he plays his best rugby on the big occasion. It's still true to say that when Sean Long plays well, Saints play well.

"Lee Gilmour's probably been our most consistent player this season. He's had to play a lot at centre, when he'd rather be in the forwards. He's been an unsung hero for a few years, has Gilly."

Wellens' own contribution has been consistent enough to keep him an automatic choice at Saints. This season, he and his team-mates have had to get used to the distinctive coaching style of Mick Potter. "He doesn't raise his voice very often," Wellens says. "But you don't get any effect from shouting and bawling and he's very focussed on doing well with St Helens."

In the old glass capital of South Lancashire, doing well now means one thing – beating Leeds. "We'll have to be at the top of our game," says their battle-hardened full-back. "We'll have to defend as well as we have been and get some points from somewhere."

How the two veterans compare: Diskin v Wellens

*MATT DISKIN

(Leeds) Hooker

Age 27

Old Trafford record

2004 Hooker and Man of Match v Bradford (won)

2005 Substitute v Bradford (lost)

2007 Hooker v St Helens (won)

2008 Hooker v St Helens (won)

*PAUL WELLENS

(St Helens) Full-back

Age 29

Old Trafford record

1999 Substitute v Bradford (won)

2000 Full-back v Wigan (won)

2002 Full-back v Bradford (won)

2006 Full-back and Man of Match v Hull (won)

2007 Full-back v Leeds (lost)

2008 Full-back v Leeds (lost)

Tonight's probable teams At Old Trafford

*LEEDS: Brent Webb, Scott Donald, Lee Smith, Keith Senior, Ryan Hall, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai, Matt Diskin, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett, Kevin Sinfield (capt).

Substitutes: Ali Lauitiiti, Ryan Bailey, Luke Burgess, Ian Kirke.

*ST HELENS: Paul Wellens, Ade Gardner, Matt Gidley, Kyle Eastmond, Francis Meli, Leon Pryce, Sean Long, James Graham, Keiron Cunningham (capt), Tony Puletua, Jon Wilkin, Chris Flannery, Lee Gilmour.

Substitutes: James Roby, Bryn Hargreaves , Paul Clough, Maurie Fa'asavalu.

Referee: Steve Ganson (St Helens).

TV: Sky Sports 1, HD1 17.30-20.30

Weather: Cool and dry. Max temp: 15C

Odds: Leeds 4/7, St Helens 7/5 (William Hill)

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