Long shadow looms over the cup

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Not for the first time in its recent history, the game on the field will today be expected to repair damage caused by some of the nonsense off it.

The build-up to the first Powergen Challenge Cup semi-final between Warrington and Wigan has been submerged by allegations of a betting scandal involving the St Helens and Great Britain players Sean Long and Martin Gleeson.

Their coach, Ian Millward, says he will consider the pair for next weekend's semi against Huddersfield, but the more immediate concern is who will be waiting for the winners of that game in the final at Cardiff on 15 May.

The Rugby League's investigation into the affair might not be complete by then, which means that Saints and the code as a whole could have a cloud hanging over them for weeks. It needs a big show at the Halton Stadium today.

This afternoon's match is full of intriguing symmetries. The two coaches, Paul Cullen and Mike Gregory, were team-mates in a Warrington side who could never quite beat Wigan in the big Cup clashes in the 1980s and '90s.

There are some vivid shared memories, such as the 1989 semi-final at Maine Road, when Joe Lydon's 60-yard drop goal broke Warrington's hearts. "It was the match where I took Joe off the ball. We were best mates - best man at each other's weddings - and his mum didn't talk to me for years," Gregory recalls. "Unfortunately, it didn't stop him dropping the goal."

Cullen played in that game, but missed the 1990 final against Wigan with an eight-match suspension that says something about the way he used to play.

"Paul never took a backward step as a player and it shows in the way his team play," Gregory says. "He'll threaten the players if they're not doing it for him."

Gregory and Cullen have been publicly supportive of each other and often compare notes, but there have been no cosy chats this week. Both have had other things to think about, such as the availability of half-backs who could be crucial to their sides' chances.

Wigan's Adrian Lam has played just half a match after a knee reconstruction and has not proved that he is ready to sign a new contract. The likelihood is that another half-game is the best that Gregory can expect from him.

Lee Briers has not seen much more action this season, returning from a broken wrist only to miss the last couple of games with an injury to his other hand. He is adamant that he will play, but Cullen has been sounding a much more cautious note.

The momentum of the two clubs means that there could be twice as many Warrington as Wigan fans today. In a game played on emotion, that could be a factor. At least the fans of both teams can be reasonably confident that no one is betting on the opposition.

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