Gibbs given chance to atone

CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: Welsh centre under pressure at the first Wiganless Wembley for nine years. Dave Hadfield reports
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No player has a stronger incentive for a match-winning Cup-final performance at Wembley this afternoon than Scott Gibbs, an accomplished rugby league player who, at the low point of his career, lost St Helens their last final.

It was understandable that, in the run-up to today's Silk Cut Challenge Cup final against the Bradford Bulls, Gibbs preferred not to dwell on the climax to the Regal Trophy in January.

That was the day that Saints outplayed Wigan, only for Gibbs to present them with a crucial gift try, waste a glaring opportunity himself and, almost as an afterthought, get himself sent off in the closing stages for using an elbow on an opponent. Sensibly, he puts this out of his mind. But he knows that he owes his team-mates a big game today.

It is ironic that it should have been Gibbs who proved so fallible when the pressure was on, because no recent union convert - not Jonathan Davies, nor John Devereux nor Va'aiga Tuigamala - has looked immediately so well adapted to the different requirements of rugby league.

From first following the well-worn motorway north two years ago, Gibbs clearly possessed what so many other converts have lacked; the right physical equipment and a real appetite for the crunching rhythms of the game, in both attack and defence.

"I think I played my best rugby league in the first six months after I came up here," he says, with the air of a man who has found that it can get more, rather than less difficult.

Certainly, any league players who expected Gibbs to lack the necessary confrontational instincts were rapidly disabused. Any theory that tackling might be his weak area was soon disproved by the bruises. "It's a very simplistic type of game, which is not to say that I'm not learning all the time," he says.

And yet Gibbs' approach to rugby league has always been equivocal. Before signing for Saints, he had both turned them down and been half-way to Humberside before deciding against joining Hull.

He has also been more up front than any recent convert - including Davies, who has gone back, and Devereux, who has found a way of combining both codes by playing the close-season with Sale - about his intention of returning to his union roots. "It's the game I grew up with," he says. "And I will go home, there's no doubt about it."

Gibbs has already flagged his desire to play union again by signing registration forms for Newcastle, so that the 180-day qualification period will have been served by the end of the first Super League season.

"I would love to play, but it's up to St Helens. I've the registration forms so that I will be able to play for Newcastle if St Helens let me. It's not just me. Chris Joynt and Bobbie Goulding would love to have a crack."

As matters stand at the moments, Saints - unlike some clubs which have rolled over compliantly as soon as rugby union has shown any interest in their players - are profoundly unenthusiastic about sharing any of them. "We don't think that we should be helping what is still a rival code," says the club's chief executive, David Howes. He also makes the point that Gibbs is not only under contract to St Helens but also to News Ltd, the financiers of Super League, and can go nowhere without the permission of both.

In Gibbs and Paul Newlove, Saints believe that they have as good a centre combination as any in the game - and it is Gibbs who provides the defensive rigour. And yet the rumours seep out of the club regularly that he is finding it all too demanding and would happily settle for a quieter life.

He has certainly found Shaun McRae a demanding taskmaster since his arrival to coach the club, noting his reaction to an unconvincing victory over today's opponents in the Super League match two weeks ago. "Shaun was furious and told us it wasn't acceptable. The quality of the win is more important to him than the scoreline. Two days later, he was still down about it and it had the effect of bringing us all back down to earth."

Although Gibbs still adopts the tones of a stranger in a strange land, he is wholeheartedly admiring of much that he sees around him at Knowsley Road. "We have half a dozen 18, 19, 20-year-olds here who are the future of the club; really outstanding athletes."

But the key man today, he says, is one he would like to introduce to the delights of his old game - the Saints scrum-half, Goulding. "We have a lot of individual flair here," he says. "But without Bobbie's cohesive flair we are an ordinary side."

Gibbs' own role in that "ordinary side" has changed under McRae. A defensive system that aims to force the opposition back inside to be picked off in midfield leaves him less head-on tackling to do. He can make his impact today in other ways - and wipe his last final from the ledger in the process.