St Helens keep faith with young half-backs for final showdown
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.
Monday 03 October 2011
The St Helens coach, Royce Simmons, will not split up his youthful half-back pairing for Saturday's Super League grand final against Leeds, even if Leon Pryce is fit for action. Pryce, plagued by injury in his last season before joining the Catalan Dragons next year, was due to be on the bench against Wigan in the match that took Saints to Old Trafford for a sixth year in succession.
On the morning of the game, however, he came down with sickness and diarrhoea, leaving the two 20-year-olds, Lee Gaskell and Jonny Lomax, with half-back duties for the full 80 minutes.
Both played a major role in Saints beating their old rivals 26-18, the same score as in their first play-off meeting a fortnight earlier. Lomax put Gaskell in for the first Saints try and both performed strongly as they clung on to their lead in the second half.
"I won't be changing the half-backs," Simmons said. "That's pretty obvious."
That is despite Pryce's unrivalled big-match experience and record of playing in nine previous Grand Finals. The best he can hope for is a spot on the substitutes' bench at Old Trafford, in place of Gary Wheeler, who was listed among the subs on Saturday, but not called upon.
The success of Lomax and Gaskell has been typical of the way Saints have coped with the adversity of being without senior players for long spells this season. Against Wigan, three of Simmons' most reliable players – Paul Wellens, James Roby and James Graham – again shone. Wellens's try was the 200th of his career, Roby underlined his claim to become Man of Steel this week, while Graham, in what could have been his last match before departing for the Canterbury Bulldogs, led powerfully from the front.
Saints are now likely to start as favourites against the Leeds club that beat them three times in a row in the last decade. The Rhinos became the first side from outside the top three – they finished fifth – to reach a grand final, by defying the odds and beating Warrington 26-24 on Friday night.
Wigan were almost as strongly fancied to beat Saints the following day, but Saints' defensive steel and more clinical finishing saw them come through as worthy winners. It was not the finale that the departing Michael Maguire would have chosen, but the coach, who is taking over at South Sydney, was able to reflect with pride on the success the Warriors have achieved under him over the last two years, with a Super League title and a Challenge Cup.
"I'm very, very proud of this group of players and the things they have achieved," he said. "It's been a big achievement to add to the great history of Wigan."
Saturday's match was also the swansong for Ryan Hoffman, who is returning to the Melbourne Storm, and Andy Coley, who is retiring. Sam Tomkins struggled through the second half after a blow to the knee, but his injury is not thought to be serious. Wigan are now expected to confirm Maguire's assistant, Shaun Wane, as their new coach.
In Australia, the former St Helens star, Jamie Lyon, led the Manly Sea Eagles to a 24-10 victory over the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL Grand Final.
The Manly captain landed three goals and scored the clinching try as the Sea Eagles held off an inspired fightback from the New Zealand side in the second half. The honour of kicking the final goal went to the winger, Michael Robertson, who will be playing in Super League with Harlequins next season.
Manly now qualify to play the Old Trafford victors in the World Club Challenge next February.
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