Wigan and Gregory to ride tide of emotion

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The Independent Online

This has been the most difficult of all Challenge Cup finals to write about, because the real stories lurk within topics which the two clubs, for their different reasons, do not much want to talk about.

This has been the most difficult of all Challenge Cup finals to write about, because the real stories lurk within topics which the two clubs, for their different reasons, do not much want to talk about.

Wigan's situation is one which puts the usual pre-Cup final speculation about dodgy hamstrings and creaking knees firmly into its correctly trivial context.

On Monday, their coach, Mike Gregory, one of the best-liked and most respected people in the game, will fly to New York for treatment for an increasingly debilitating illness, the effects of which upon him have become all too obvious in recent weeks. Gregory is a sick man, but he is also a very brave one, insisting that he is capable of remaining in charge of the team's preparations for today's game.

"It's not a gamble," he says. "The gamble is playing St Helens in a Cup final. Things are put in front of us and we have to deal with them.

"Unfortunately, I have a bit of a health issue, but the focus is not about me. If I don't focus on my job, I'll slip up. If I miss anything, I'm selling the team short - and I'm not prepared to do that."

People who admire Gregory - as a person, a player and a coach - have watched with increasing concern over the past few months as it has become more and more evident that something is wrong.

Wigan is full of amateur diagnoses, but the official theory is that an insect bite on a southern hemisphere tour three years ago is responsible for a chronic bacterial infection, which has affected his speech and the right side of his body.

It has been deeply moving this week to see him battling against the limitations that his health is gradually imposing on him at the viciously early age of 39, but one thing that is clear is that his thought processes are as sharp as ever. There have even been occasions when he has used his difficulty in getting his words out to heroically comic effect.

After a recent match at Huddersfield, for instance - one which prompted the Saints coach, Ian Millward, to accuse Wigan of head-hunting - he was asked whether he thought his side had a problem with its discipline.

"It's not discipline," he said. "It's... timing. Tackling is very much like comedy. It's all about... timing." How could you not want a man like that to win a Cup final? You just could not begrudge him it for a moment, especially when you factor into the equation the additional information that, although from Wigan, he never played for them, and he never won the Cup with Warrington, for whom he played for most of his career.

Wigan will be heavy on emotion today. Their preparation included a lunch with heroes of the past, intended to imprint on today's young local players and assorted imports just how special the Challenge Cup is to this club.

This afternoon, they will be led out by the ultimate Wigan legend, the Cardiff-born and bred Billy Boston, but the main reason that anyone with a heart and not from St Helens will be hoping for a Wigan victory will be a couple of strides behind him, not moving quite as freely as he did when he captained Great Britain, completely absorbed by the contest ahead, but facing a far bigger battle over the coming weeks and months.

The extra emotion of the occasion could inspire Wigan or overwhelm them, but St Helens have not exactly had a standard-issue preparation either. Viewed against the backcloth of Wigan's situation, it would be easy to cast Saints and Millward in the roles of pantomime villains; indeed, that is a part they sometimes seem to positively relish.

Saints have a wonderful tradition of playing some of the best rugby league you will ever see, but if there is a way of sailing close to the wind, of stretching the rules, provoking a row or exploiting a loophole, they will find it.

For anyone who has missed it, they go into this final with potentially serious charges of betting against their own club hanging over two of their best players, Sean Long and Martin Gleeson. They were interviewed by the Rugby League's disciplinary commissioner last week and will be again this week.

In between, they have today's little event. It hardly sounds like an ideal timetable, but the first exhibit of evidence for the defence could be the way that they have played ever since this storm broke, like men blissfully unaware that they might have done anything wrong. It is in the nature of athletes to be able to put inconvenient distractions to one side, but if they are worried they have hidden it well.

The same could be said of Millward, whose nonsensical selection of a reserve team to play Bradford set the scene for what, if the accusations are true, must rank as one of the most amateurish betting coups on record.

As one Saints insider said: "If they get banned from rugby league, they aren't going to make livings as criminal masterminds." Millward will probably never accept that he did anything wrong either, which is especially baffling from a man with his genuine feelings for the traditions of the game, in which fielding your best team is as big a part as the Challenge Cup.

Alongside those impulses, however, there is the mischievous need to provoke, which expresses itself in a hundred different ways. Even this week, he became the first Cup final coach to hold his media briefing in his opposition's territory: on the outskirts of Wigan. It was convenient enough, but only "Basil", as he is known, would come up with it.

On this season's showing so far, Saints' best team - so much better balanced than it was last year - should be too good for the best that Wigan can produce.

But that is to ignore the imponderables. Saints were logical favourites when the two old rivals met at Murrayfield in 2002, but it was Wigan who had the edge in hunger and desperation on the day.

There are far more substantial reasons why Wigan should have a tide of raw emotion flowing in their favour today. For all sorts of reasons, the last Challenge Cup final to be staged in spring - it moves to August next year - will be a difficult one to forget.