Paul Sculthorpe: His final Challenge

Face-To-Face: At Wembley today a St Helens legend, dogged by injury and facing an uncertain future, will try to go out fighting. Dave Hadfield spoke to him
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The Independent Online

Even for someone with the robust self belief of Paul Sculthorpe, it came as sweet music to hear his coach say that he will definitely play at Wembley today.

Sculthorpe was threatened with the ignominy of his St Helens career ending in a whimper. Having been told that there will be no contract for him next season, the latest in his depressing series of injuries seemed to have arrived at precisely the wrong time as he aimed for the Challenge Cup final against Hull and then the Super League play-offs.

"It's been frustrating more than anything, because apart from the injuries I've felt great," said the former Great Britain captain. That is rather a big "apart from". Sculthorpe's troubles began with major knee surgery, carried on with a snapped Achilles tendon and continued with the relatively low-grade but equally galling problem of a niggling hamstring.

There were whispers that the player, who has twice been elected Man of Steel as the season's outstanding player, was now more a man of straw. Sculthorpe got his chance to change that perception last Sunday at Huddersfield, where he was as good as told by his coach, Daniel Anderson, that he needed to play the full 80 minutes to prove that he was fit for the final.

He managed that and, equally significantly, another of Saints' experienced forwards, the New Zealand prop Jason Cayless, damaged knee ligaments and was ruled out of the final. Sculthorpe was in the frame.

"I knew it was important to get through the game at Huddersfield and now it's great to be selected," said Sculthorpe, who bitterly resents being seen as a washed-up veteran. "It's a while since I played a full 80 minutes. The timing was going a bit by the end, but fitness-wise I was fine."

That has rarely been the case during Anderson's three and a half years at Knowsley Road. "I've hardly played for Daniel," Sculthorpe said. Indeed, when he has, it has not always been to great effect. One notable exception was in the World Club Challenge against the Brisbane Broncos at the start of the 2007 season, when Sculthorpe came back after a long lay-off and had a stunningly influential game.

In general, however, he has become a peripheral figure. There seems little warmth between him and Anderson and when Sculthorpe has played it has rarely been in the role he prefers. Before his run of bad luck, Sculthorpe aspired to the classic loose-forward's range, destroying and creating with a free rein to go wherever on the pitch he saw fit.

"When I've played recently, it's been more of a right-sided second-row role, running straight lines," he said. "But before the latest injury I was voted best loose-forward of the month, so I was getting back some form."

This second-row-esque role can seem mundane, but it is the role that will be required of him today. At least that state of affairs gives him the chance to go into the future as a winner, something even the unsentimental Anderson says one of the best players of his generation deserves. What that future holds is less clear. Sculthorpe wants to carry on playing, although there is talk of an off-field role at Saints. Wakefield were interested in recruiting him to play alongside his younger brother, Danny, but decided that they could not afford him. He has also been linked with the two new Super League clubs, Salford and the Celtic Crusaders.

"I've got a few options," he said. "I want to get these games out of the way and if I am leaving I want to leave in the right way."

The future for Saints lies with players like Paul Clough, who is 10 years younger than Sculthorpe almost to the day and who would, had everyone been fit, probably have kept the older man out of the Wembley side. With his boundless enthusiasm and energy, Clough might remind Sculthorpe of his younger self.

"He's so keen that they have to tell him when he's done enough training," Sculthorpe said. "With players like him, James Graham and James Roby, the future is in safe hands."

Another way of looking at the future is through the eyes of Sculthorpe's eight-year-old son, Jake, who was with him for the squad announcement this week and had to be told by his dad to stop spinning a rugby ball around during the interviews. Jake plays for the Orrell St James club that produced, among others, Keiron Cunningham and Andy Farrell. "His skill level's terrific, because he's always had a ball in his hands," Sculthorpe said.

There have been times when we wondered whether Sculthorpe would get a ball in his hands for Saints again, but he has the chance now to leave the club amid good memories of performing on the big stage.

Challenge Cup final teams

St Helens



1 Paul Wellens

2 Ade Gardner

3 Matt Gidley

4 Wille Talau

5 Francis Meli

6 Leon Pryce

7 Sean Long

8 Nick Fozzard

9 Keiron Cunningham

10 James Graham

11 Jon Wilkin

12 Chris Flannery

13 Paul Sculthorpe

Substitutes: James Roby, Bryn Hargreaves, Paul Clough, Lee Gilmour.

Hull

1 Todd Byrne

2 Matt Sing

3 Graeme Horne

4 Kirk Yeaman

5 Gareth Raynor

6 Danny Washbrook

7 Richard Horne or Adam Dykes

8 Ewan Dowes

9 Shaun Berrigan

10 Garreth Carvell

11 Willie Manu

12 Danny Tickle

13 Lee Radford

Substitutes: Peter Cusack, Tommy Lee, Jamie Thackray, Tom Briscoe.

Referee: S Ganson (St Helens)

Kick-off: 2.30pm (bbc1, 1.30pm)

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