Leeds to risk centres in hope of causing upset at Wembley
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 27 August 2011
The Leeds coach, Brian McDermott, admits that he is gambling on the fitness of his centres, Kallum Watkins and Carl Ablett, in his bid for a Wembley upset.
Both players were declared fit at the stadium yesterday, despite injuries last weekend which – especially in Watkins' case – seemed likely to keep them out of the Challenge Cup final against Wigan.
"I think it's a risk," said McDermott, while insisting that it was not as big a risk as the disastrous one Leeds took on Keith Senior in 2005. "They're not 100 per cent; I won't tell you lies. But Kallum has been up and running around. Our physio, Dave O'Sullivan, has worked his magic."
Both Watkins' knee and Ablett's ankle will need painkilling injections, but Leeds' captain, Kevin Sinfield, hailed their inclusion in the squad as a major boost. "I'm really pleased, because they add a lot to our team," he said.
If Leeds are to overturn the odds by beating Wigan at Wembley today, it will be a victory for a very different approach from last year. The Rhinos made no secret of their focus on the Challenge Cup in 2010 and the intensity of their build-up to the big day.
They were thrashed 30-6 by Warrington, so this time they have been playing it down for all they are worth. "We're in the Cup final and we don't even know how we've got there," said Sinfield.
McDermott has even gone against the usual Cup final mantra of taking "one game at a time". Far from putting it out of their minds before their last Super League game at Harlequins, they used the looming prospect of Wembley in their preparations. A 32-22 defeat at The Stoop was not exactly a powerful advertisement for that approach, but if they win today it will look like a masterstroke.
If they do defy the odds, many of their own supporters will miss it. There could be fewer than 10,000 of their fans at Wembley after a particularly slow up-take of their ticket allocation, whereas there could be close to 30,000 from Wigan. Part of the reason for that is economic. "There are factors beyond our control. There's no doubt that we're living in tough times," said the Rugby League's chairman, Richard Lewis, who also confirmed that the final will be played on the same weekend next year, despite the Olympics finishing just two weeks earlier.
The other factor is that few of their own followers think that Leeds can win today. Their league form has been uneven and unconvincing. "We're playing a great team, who are bang in form," said Sinfield. "But we believe we can win and that's what matters.
"I didn't know what it would be like coming back to Wembley today, but you look at the place and it just begs to be played on."
Sinfield's expertise, particularly at the death in a tight match, is one reason why it would be foolish to write off Leeds' chances too quickly.
They have other proven match-winners on the big occasion in Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire and the fresh-faced enthusiasm of Watkins and Ben Jones-Bishop to leaven the mix.
The clean bill of health in the centres means that Lee Smith and Ali Lauitiiti are the two members of the 19-man squad likely to miss out.
Wigan's Michael Maguire was playing his cards equally close to his chest yesterday, but the indications are that Gareth Hock will edge out Liam Farrell for the last place on the bench.
Wigan's preparation has included a session with Sir Alex Ferguson and training with their old boy, Andy Farrell, at Saracens.
Yesterday, everyone else was ordered inside while the players had a huddle on the Wembley pitch. This is a club that wants the Challenge Cup very badly. Mind you, the same was true of Leeds last year.
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