Gregory faces up to Wigan with a point to prove

Left out of the Super League, Salford - champions of the First Division - plan to show their class. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
Andy Gregory would dearly love to give his old club a surprise on Sunday - but not the one they are half expecting.

The Salford coach is adamant that he will not be dusting off his boots for the Rugby League Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie against Wigan at The Willows, despite their suspicion that he just might be tempted.

"I see that the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, thinks I've got a surprise up my sleeve and that I'm going to play on Sunday," he said. "If I do, there'll be nobody more surprised than me."

It is a measure of Gregory's success as a coach this season that Salford have not missed him as a player. He has made only three appearances, but Salford have won the First Division Championship in some style, backing up his claim that they are a Super League side in the making.

"We don't think of ourselves as a First Division side. I know we can do the business in the Super League - and by that I don't mean just going up and coming straight back down again.

"We were disappointed not to be in the Super League, but we have taken a very positive attitude to it. It is disappointing as well to have won the Championship and not to have gone up. All we have got is a rose-bowl.

"Sunday is our chance to show that we can play at the top level - and there is no better test of that than Wigan."

Even though Gregory would still rank as one of the Wigan fans' out-and- out favourites from their decade of dominance, he is not sentimental about the club or his time there.

"Wigan is history to me. I had some good years there, but I also had some good years at Widnes and a good season at Warrington. We've been trying to approach this as just another match."

There is an inevitable resonance, though, because Gregory, even confining himself to the dug-out, will have four former Wigan players on duty.

The two veterans, Steve Hampson and Sam Panapa, have been particularly influential during the First Division campaign.

"Steve is a very fit lad and he has always been able to play the game," said Gregory of his old mate. "He has been in tremendous form and has stayed clear of injury, plus he has such a good influence off the field.

"Sam is another one whose overall leadership has been a help off the field as well as on. And he has been playing as well as I've seen him for years."

Wigan have a rough idea of what to expect from two players who shared in some of their most memorable successes. Steve Blakeley and Scott Naylor are a different matter, as they had only brief careers at Central Park before being allowed to move on.

Blakeley, as a prolific goal-kicker and creative stand-off, has been a major acquisition for the Red Devils, while Naylor has finally got his career moving after being repeatedly stalled by injury.

"We have competition for places in all positions now. When we get hold of a couple of other players we are chasing, we will have a team that could go well in the Super League."

Gregory's old position of scrum-half is a case in point. He has played a converted hooker, Mark Lee, in the No 7 shirt all season - a ploy that worked far better than most people expected.

Behind him, he has the newly arrived Cook Islands scrum-half, Ali Davys, who was hugely impressive during the Emerging Nations' World Cup, and the Academy international, Ian Watson.

No room there for a 34-year-old with a lot of miles on the clock. But Gregory firmly believes that Salford can give his old club plenty of grief on Sunday without him attempting to turn that clock back.