Hungry like the born-again Wolf

Monaghan was blamed for Warrington's woes but is the key man for Wembley showdown.
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The Independent Online

If Michael Monaghan's Warrington career had carried on the way it was going, he could be back in Australia by now, his whole English experience written off as an unfortunate detour. Instead, he will be at Wembley next Saturday, as arguably their key man in their first Challenge Cup final for almost 20 years.

Earlier this season, Warrington were equal last in Super League and plenty of their fans were ready to blame Monaghan and his fellow countryman, the Test centre Matt King, for their woeful underachievement. "There were all sorts of rumours that we were going home and we certainly had a rough time at some stages," he says. "But we were always pretty confident that, if we carried on working hard, it would come right for us."

It has taken a couple of changes to make that happen. Firstly, the Wolves bit the bullet and brought in the England coach, Tony Smith, over the head of the incumbent, James Lowes.

"What he has brought, more than anything, is an attention to detail, which was an area where we had been weak," Monaghan says. "He identifies little things that others would miss – not just areas where the opposition have a weakness, but more where we have a weakness."

One detail Smith soon addressed was the issue of where Monaghan should play. Although signed as a scrum-half, he has plenty of experience at hooker for his previous clubs, Canberra and Manly, and it is in that role that he has done much to turn Warrington's fortunes around.

Smith, who was perhaps a little lukewarm about him as a scrum-half, was almost forced into the change by injuries to his specialist hookers, Mick Higham and Jon Clarke. He says, however, that "Mick has been fantastic for us in that role over the last few weeks".

The semi-final at Widnes three weeks ago was perhaps the best example so far of the way his muscular running and sharp distribution from dummy-half can disrupt the opposition, as he made it a miserable afternoon for the Wigan prop Iafeta Paleaaesina in particular.

At Wembley, he will again be trying to find a vulnerable defender. "It's the aim of every hooker in every team, in every game you play, but we know Huddersfield are a very strong team defensively, who will take some breaking down. They've got some big units down the middle and speed out wide when the ball goes there."

That puts the onus on Monaghan and on half-back and playmaker Lee Briers, who was given the freedom of the park against Wigan by his team-mate's domination of the play-the-ball area. "I'm comfortable at half-back or hooker," Monaghan says. "But hooker is probably the position that suits me best at the moment."

Most of that quote could apply equally well to the Giants' Scott Moore, with whom he will be in direct opposition on Saturday. "He's certainly a good footballer," Monaghan says of Moore. "But they've plenty of other players who can hurt you, like Luke Robinson and Brett Hodgson."

Hodgson, the Huddersfield captain and full-back, is a player he knows well from Australia. "He's always been a good player and it's no surprise at all that he's been the success here that he has," Monaghan says.

Success for Monaghan at Wembley next Saturday would crown a relationship he has had with the code's longest-established showpiece for over two decades. His father Stewart is what he describes as a "league tragic", who made sure that Michael and his brother, the recent Australian Test winger Joel, were allowed to stay up into the early hours of the morning in Canberra to watch the Cup final.

"I remember watching when Wigan had such a strong team and always wanting the Australian players to do well. Mind you, I never realised how big it was until I saw the reaction in Warrington when we won the semi-final. I had no idea how big it was for the town."

The sense of occasion will be heightened for Monaghan by the presence of his father at the stadium – and one senses that it will be just as big a day for him as for his son out on the field. "He coached us both from the under-fives and he's probably even more into football than me and my brother," Monaghan says.

Warrington's born-again hooker can make it a memorable event for the whole family on Saturday.

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