Sculthorpe confronts the young pretender

In the best of this weekend's Challenge Cup ties, Paul Sculthorpe and St Helens must stop the player who could hold the key to him playing the role he prefers for Great Britain.

The longer Sculthorpe plays, the more he yearns to be regarded as his country's first-choice loose forward. There have been two problems with that: Great Britain have had Andy Farrell at the back of the scrum and, with no convincing candidate at stand-off, the temptation to switch Sculthorpe to that role has often been irresistible.

Now, however, Farrell's future could lie in the second row and Leeds' 21-year-old Danny McGuire is making a serious bid for the No 6 shirt, with compelling early-season form that includes a hat-trick at Castleford last weekend.

Sculthorpe wishes him well, but not at Knowsley Road this afternoon. "Danny's a great young player. I remember him coming on last year in the semi-finals and scoring the two tries that beat us," he says. "He's got great pace and a great eye for a gap. He's the kind of player who can win a game out of nothing and maybe that's the sort of player we want for Great Britain."

Sculthorpe, almost an elder statesman of the game now, despite still being 26, is also an admirer of McGuire's half-back partner and a supporter of the way that the new Leeds coach, Tony Smith, is using them as his first-choice pairing.

"I'm a big fan of Rob Burrow as well," Sculthorpe says. "The more the two of them play together the better it is for Great Britain, because those are the positions where we've struggled recently."

Sculthorpe himself struggled with injury through the galling 3-0 series defeat by Australia in November - as he had done through much of the domestic season - but found that the best way to get over that disappointment was by throwing himself into pre-season preparation with Saints.

He returned to full training well before the date set down by his coach, Ian Millward, for him and the other Great Britain players to report back, and says he has had his best pre-season ever. It has also been one packed with significant changes, with a move from his Oldham home to be closer to St Helens and the succession to the club's captaincy.

"I'm loving that," he says. "It's a big honour for me to captain such a great bunch of lads. They make it easy for me and they all contribute if they have anything to say. There are no egos at this club."

Sculthorpe gets some particular help from his predecessor in the role and the most successful captain Saints have ever had, Chris Joynt.

"People like him and Sean Long say their piece, but some of the younger guys do as well - anyone who can help the team win," Sculthorpe adds.

Along with the form of Long and Sculthorpe, one of the keys to the way Saints have started the season is another of their senior players, the new, slimline Keiron Cunningham. After his troubles, on and off the field, last season, the Test hooker is another who looks to have used his winter well.

"I've trained with Keiron this winter and I've never seen him work so hard," Sculthorpe says. "He's taken quite a bit of weight off, but he's still got the power. In fact, he's probably stronger than he's ever been - he's so strong and so quick."

One ploy that is already working like a dream for Saints is bringing on Mick Higham and moving Cunningham away from the hooker's role in mid-game to use him as a destructive running forward.

"One of the great things for us so far has been the pace at which we play the game and it's great to have two hookers like that. Micky's got such pace and he plays about three stones above his weight."

Apart from getting extra value from players like that, Sculthorpe says that the influx of new signings, like the outstanding Samoan rugby union World Cup player Dom Feaunati, this winter has freshened up Saints.

"The new guys can bring a bit more intensity and enthusiasm. Dom is the perfect example of that. He's absolutely thriving on it and he's getting better every game."

All in all, the new captain is confident that Saints have what it will take to wipe out the memory of last season's heartbreaking, McGuire-inspired semi-final defeat by Leeds.

"We were happy with the draw, because these are the games you want to play in," he says. "It will mean a lot to us if we can get to Cardiff, after being so disappointed at falling short last season."

And, although Sculthorpe expects to be in Great Britain squads with them before too long, it will help if Leeds' young guns do not further underline their international credentials just yet.

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