Radlinski's art turns defence into attack

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Wigan full-back's combination of rugby league talents may be the key to tomorrow's Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.

Wigan full-back's combination of rugby league talents may be the key to tomorrow's Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.

The last time Kris Radlinski met his opposite number in tomorrow's Super League Grand Final, he had a consoling word for him. Unlike Radlinski, St Helens' Paul Wellens missed out on selection for England's World Cup squad. "I was talking to him after our last game and I told him that I was shocked that he didn't get picked for the England side," said the Wigan full-back. "I told him to keep his head up, because his time will come." Prophetic words, as Wellens has since been drafted in.

Radlinski is only 24 and plans to be England's No 1 at No 1 for some time yet. He is also the sort of generous character from whom it is hard to wrench anything but praise for an opponent, but there is no doubt that his admiration for Wellens is genuine. "He's had a fantastic season. He's already a solid player who doesn't make many mistakes and always has the knack of turning up in the right place. He's a quiet lad and he seems very willing to learn.

"He's got a similar role to what I have. In attack, I think his coach just tells him to go out an enjoy himself. He turns up wherever he wants." But however well Wellens has performed in his first full season, he still faces the problem - as the talented Wes Davies does at Wigan - of getting past Kris Radlinski.

The offspring of Polish immigrants, Radlinski has been a fixture in the Wigan side for long enough for his solidity in defence and enterprise on the counter-attack to be sometimes taken for granted. Until it momentarily goes missing, that is. The last time Wigan played St Helens, supporters came reeling out of the JJB Stadium in something close to disbelief; Radlinski, exposed by the errors of those in front of him, had actually missed a couple of tackles.

It was significant that the match in which Wigan marked their recovery from that shock also featured a vintage individual performance from him.

"We were mentally exhausted after that St Helens game, but we knew what we had to do the following week," he says. "A lot of players had something to prove against Bradford. After that, it was surprisingly quiet. People were sitting in the changing-room quite content with what we'd achieved."

Much of that achievement was based on some dazzling attacking play, with Radlinski's hair-trigger pass to Jason Robinson one of the highlights. But, for a 40-12 win, there was a surprising amount of serious defence to be done in the early stages - and Radlinski was once more his old self. "It was pretty physical up the middle," he says with his usual understatement. "There was quite a lot of work to do in defence."

Tell that to Robbie Paul, potentially the spark who could have ignited Bradford, but who was effectively snuffed out by the sort of tackle that makes people wince 30 rows back in the stand. Perfectly timed and perfectly legal, it threatened to cut the Bulls' scrum-half in two. From that moment, there was no real doubt that Wigan were on their way to the Grand Final.

Now that they are there, Radlinski is as flummoxed as anyone by the task of drawing a form line through the two teams' results against each other this season. "How can you read it? The bookies have got a nightmare this weekend. They've beaten us three times this year. They put 40 past us; we put 40 past them.

"The only conclusion I can come to is that what's happened in the past has no effect this Saturday. Everyone knows what Saints can do in attack, but they're so unpredictable. It was no disgrace losing at home to us, but then they came back like they did at the JJB. It's hard to make any sense of it."

This is an important autumn for Radlinski and his international standing in the game. Immediately after the Grand Final, the focus switches to the Lincoln World Cup - and Radlinski will fly out to Florida for pre-tournament training as England's obvious first-choice at full-back.

He is not assuming, however, that he has a mortgage on the role or an automatic chance to make amends for the matches against Australia and New Zealand last autumn when he, like most of his Great Britain team-mates, was below par. But, before he can face the likes of Australia's Darren Lockyer and Richie Barnett of New Zealand, he has to see off the challenge of Wellens and Stuart Spruce of Bradford - the two other full-backs in John Kear's squad.

"I can't go out and assume I'm going to be in the team," he insists. But if the real Kris Radlinski stands up at Old Trafford - a ground where he has played and won on five occasions - Kear, like the overwhelming majority of his opponents, will find it hard to go past him.