Wigan meet Wolves with new appetite for the fight

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Despite an absurd 10-week gap since the quarter-finals – long enough for them to lose the will to live, let alone their form – all four teams in this weekend's Challenge Cup semi-finals look capable of winning the trophy.

When they qualified at the end of May, Warrington were in rather more convincing form than Wigan. Now, however, Brian Noble's side has had time to build up the sort of resilience that is needed in semi-finals. Although Noble's future at the club remains uncertain, he has slowly turned his team into a formidable fighting force.

The prodigious talents of Sam Tomkins at stand-off have been the obvious headline-grabber, but Wigan's improvement has owed just as much to some of the less heralded forwards. Andy Coley, Paul Prescott and Harrison Hansen have all been in the form of their lives. They should be bolstered at Widnes today by the return from injury of Phil Bailey and their captain, Sean O'Loughlin.

They are armed too with a collective determination to wipe out the memories of two years ago, when they meekly lost a semi-final to the Catalan Dragons – a disappointment from which the club has only just begun to recover. "These sort of things scorch themselves onto your brain," Noble said this week.

Warrington stand in the way of him putting that right. They too have had a renaissance, in this case under a new coach in Tony Smith.

Scoring tries has never been a problem for them; under Smith they have tightened up their defence and their discipline and have become accordingly hard to beat. Serious injuries last weekend have deprived them of Brian Carney and Simon Grix, so Chris Riley will reappear on the wing and a reshuffle will restore Michael Monaghan to scrum-half.

Matt King is ready to return in the centres after a hamstring strain and the Wolves look capable of going back to Wembley for the first time since 1990 and of winning the cup for the first time since 1974.

Earlier this season, the Huddersfield coach, Nathan Brown, accused his players of lacking the belief that they could beat St Helens. That was after a 23-6 defeat by Saints in the second round of Super League matches, but, in the light of what has happened since, it seems longer ago than that.

The Giants have established themselves in third place in the table and have no room for any inferiority complex any more. "The biggest challenge here was getting the players to believe they can beat that sort of opposition," said Brown, whose first season at the Galpharm has made him a candidate for Super League coach of the year.

"We still see St Helens as a very good team, but a beatable team."

In a sense, Saints only have themselves to blame for that transformation, because Scott Moore, the hooker they lent to Huddersfield for the season, has emerged as a key man in their dramatic improvement, along with Eorl Crabtree, who has been the game's outstanding impact forward. Apart from the injured Andy Raleigh and the cup-tied Danny Sculthorpe, Brown has the luxury of a full squad to select from.

And yet betting against Saints in the cup has been a mug's game in the last few years; no club since Wigan in the 1980s and 1990s have dominated the competition as they have.

You would have more confidence in them at Warrington tomorrow, however, if they could field a fully fit Sean Long, who can only shut one eye, thanks to a recently fractured jaw. He has been included in a 19-man squad, but playing him in this game seems a gamble that is not in Mick Potter's nature.