Underdogs ready for all eventualities

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Wigan took the unique step of going through a full pre-match routine at the Millennium Stadium yesterday to ensure that the ground holds no terrors for them this afternoon.

Wigan took the unique step of going through a full pre-match routine at the Millennium Stadium yesterday to ensure that the ground holds no terrors for them this afternoon.

Wigan will be the underdogs against St Helens today and for the first time in their illustrious Challenge Cup final history they filed out in formation and even practised listening to the National Anthem.

The club's assistant coach, Denis Betts, seven times a Cup winner himself, was the guiding light behind the new approach.

"It was Denis' idea," said the Wigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay. "He wanted the players to be mentally prepared. Apart from Craig Smith none of them have played here and most of them have never been here.

"That 10-minute ritual before the game can sometimes drain players, so he wanted them to go through everything in advance." Wigan's youngest player, the 19-year-old Kevin Brown, was one who appreciated the meticulous approach.

"It's going to help me that I know exactly what's going to happen," he said.

The Wigan coach, Mike Gregory, has warned the players against waving to friends and families in the crowd when they come out into the arena for real this afternoon.

"The focus is not about family. It's all about the game and that's what I've told them to concentrate on," he said.

"Gregory will not be able to celebrate if Wigan win, because he flies to New York on Monday for treatment for the chronic infection that has increasingly debilitated him over the last few months.

"I can't drink, but when we win I might just have a sip of champagne from the cup," he said.

Gregory revealed that he could switch Danny Orr to hooker during the game if he feels a tactical variation is needed.

"I feel sorry for Mark Smith, who has done nothing to deserve to be left out," he said. "But I just feel we don't need two specialist hookers for this match."

Saints will use Jon Wilkin, who is missing a geography exam at Liverpool University to play in this match, as their extra hooker, thus releasing Kieron Cunningham to do further damage as a running forward for at least part of the game.

Such is Ian Millward's reputation for having something up his sleeve, however, that there has been a conspiracy theory to the effect that Mick Higham does not have a broken ankle after all and will miraculously recover in time for the match.

"If he's going to do that, it will be his best ever, because Micky's got a plaster cast up to his knee," said the Saints captain, Paul Sculthorpe.

Nor was Sculthorpe particularly impressed by the structured formality of Wigan's approach a little earlier yesterday.

"You don't play your game today," he said. "The important thing for us is just to be relaxed." Millward is happy to have set that as the tone for this year's final.

"I don't want them getting too stressed," he said. "We're here to have some fun tomorrow."

Saints certainly have the team to have fun in most circumstances. After what for them was a barren year, they rediscovered the right balance in their side and appear to have the edge over Wigan in most key areas. However, that was also true two years ago at Murrayfield, where it was Wigan who got the mood right on the day and earned a victory that was just as surprising as one today would be.

"But this is probably the best preparation we've had in the Challenge Cup," said Millward. "Compared to two years ago, I'm 100 per cent happier." Or, as Sculthorpe put it: "We turned up thinking we had the right to win it. I don't think we'll ever underestimate Wigan again."

In one sense, it will be the wrong two teams walking out on the Millennium Stadium's imported and freshly laid turf this afternoon. The pitch was grown in Yorkshire; the question is which of the two Lancastrian approaches - Wigan's orchestrated attention to detail or Saints' more casual attitude - will be most at home.