Stevie Ward looks for teenage kicks at Wembley

 

The positive influence of youth could be the key for Leeds as they try to conclude some unfinished business in today's Challenge Cup final.

The 18-year-old prodigy, Stevie Ward, will be the youngest finalist since Francis Cummins played for them at Wembley at the age of 17 in 1994. Leeds last won the game's oldest trophy in 1999 and since then have lost five finals.

That means that none of the "blue-and-amber generation" of gifted Rhinos players have lifted the Cup – apart from Jamie Peacock in his Bradford days. "It's not something we talk about every day, but, yes, it would be special," said the Leeds captain, Kevin Sinfield.

Ward has been saddled with the tag of the new Kevin Sinfield, but the original believes that he is well capable of carrying that burden.

"There are some comparisons, because we were both here at 18, playing and doing our A-levels. In fact, I can't imagine another 18-year-old in the country who could have done what Stevie has done these last few months," Sinfield said.

That includes pulling out of the England Academy tour to Australia, in order to stay in Yorkshire and compete for a Cup final place.

"It was a very difficult decision for him, but it shows how single-minded he is," said Sinfield.

Ward is not only earmarked for a starting role against Warrington, he also has to take over at stand-off from an injured potential match-winner like Danny McGuire.

It is a heavy responsibility on young shoulders, but his captain has no doubt that he can carry it. "At 18, you've got no fear," Sinfield said.

"Wembley takes your breath away, although I've been here twice as a fan," said Ward at the traditional familiarisation visit yesterday.

Significantly, he is rooming with McGuire, so that some of the latter's big-match experience might rub off.

Another big decision the Leeds coach, Brian McDermott, has had to make concerns the full-back position. Zak Hardaker has been such a success since being moved there that it is surely unthinkable that he could be left out for the more experienced Brent Webb today.

Warrington's Tony Smith has also had to weigh his options, although in their case it has been more a matter of who to leave out. The unluckiest man is Chris Bridge, a Cup-winner in 2009, but omitted this time.

That means a starting berth at right centre for Stefan Ratchford, signed from Salford last winter. Injuries gave him a slow start to his Warrington career, but his recent form has been compelling.

Another new face in the Wolves ranks this afternoon is Chris Hill, a relative latecomer to Super League after being recruited from Leigh, but one who has adapted rapidly.

No less an authority than the Warrington captain, Adrian Morley, has described him as the club's form prop of recent weeks.

The Wolves will start as favourites to win their third Challenge Cup in four years, but there is a lingering suspicion that Leeds are destined one August day at Wembley to make up for all their disappointments.

One thing that is difficult to imagine is it being a dull final. In their different styles, both sides are keen to play expansive rugby.

Rugby league could use a successful showpiece. The continuing crisis at Bradford, not to mention the uncertainty over the London Broncos' future plans, has put a big, black cloud on the Super League horizon.

The game could use a sparkling final as rarely before, if only as confirmation that it remains a lot healthier on the pitch than on the balance sheet.

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