Goulding fired up for `friendly' with Wigan

Rugby League

For all the much-trumpeted charms of summer rugby, clubs cannot quite bring themselves to desert the deep midwinter entirely. Traditional Boxing Day fixtures have been such a reliable money-spinner that they have survived the revolution.

Coaches and players might not much have liked the idea of games in the middle of what is now their close-season when it was first mooted, but chairmen, chief executives and bank managers most certainly do.

Hence the continuation of the festive pattern, first established in 1905, of Wigan and St Helens playing each other the day after Christmas. You can pronounce the tradition intact, of course, but it is the seriousness with which the fixture is played at Central Park this afternoon that will be the proof of the Christmas pudding.

Fans starved of nourishment for the last few months will probably turn up this year - Wigan are predicting at least 15,000 - but any sign that the game is being played as a glorified friendly will discredit it for the future.

According to Saints' captain, Bobbie Goulding, there is no danger of that. "Games between St Helens and Wigan are never friendlies," he said. "Any player going in thinking he can take it easy is going to get hurt. There might not be any league points at stake, but there is a mountain of pride involved."

St Helens will be without the injured Chris Joynt and Joey Hayes, while there were others who came back battered from the Australasian tour and would normally have welcomed a longer period of recuperation.

Against that, Saints will field a new signing, the former Auckland Warriors prop, Julian O'Neill, and the reserve team hooker, Alan Cross, makes his debut in place of the injured Keiron Cunningham.

With Shaun Edwards still recovering from a knee operation and Henry Paul profitably engaged in rugby union, Wigan will field a half-back partnership of Nigel Wright and Craig Murdock. They will outdo Saints by having all three of their new signings - "Doc" Murray, Ian Sherratt and Stephen Holgate - in action for at least part of the match.

New faces abound at Headingley this morning as well, when Leeds meet Halifax. All three of the home side's signings from Sheffield are scheduled to play: Ryan Sheridan at scrum-half, Dean Lawford in the new position for him of hooker and Anthony Farrell on the bench.

Also among the substitutes will be two other newcomers in the former Hull winger, Paul Sterling, and the Australian prop, Jamie Mathiou. Neil Picchi, a New Zealander who was injured almost as soon as he arrived last season, re-emerges at loose forward, while Halifax welcome back St John Ellis on the wing.

Huddersfield, at home to Keighley, could give the prop Neil Harmon, signed from Leeds, a first run. In the most parochial derby of them all, Batley and Dewsbury at least have the benefit of some match practice, as they both played French team Villeneuve last week.