Life in the old firm yet

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The Independent Online
Much has changed during a rugby league season dominated by the likes of Bradford and London, but the presence of the old firm in the Premiership final at Old Trafford today preserves a thread of continuity.

St Helens and Wigan have experienced contrasting years, Saints starting as though destined to carry on the leading role they adopted during the first Super League season, but then falling apart for several weeks after retaining the Challenge Cup. Wigan, on the other hand, have struggled from the start, with some success latterly, to rebuild an edifice badly damaged by events off the field.

Between them, they will still provide the bulk of Andy Goodway's Great Britain team to face Australia, which should be some guarantee of quality this afternoon. Wigan have three players who would be candidates for any World XIII - Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson and Gary Connolly - plus Test contenders in Kris Radlinski, Tony Smith, Simon Haughton, Mick Cassidy, Terry O'Connor and, just possibly on current form, Neil Cowie. St Helens are still without the injured Steve Prescott, but will have representatives in Goodway's squad in Alan Hunte, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan and Karle Hammond in the backs and Keiron Cunningham and Chris Joynt among the forwards.

Some would add Sean Long to that list, but the St Helens coach - and Great Britain technical coach - Shaun McRae is more cautious. "He has done really well this season, but he still has a long way to go," he said, although the former Wigan half-back will probably be rewarded for his current sparkle by being included in the train-on squad for the series.

One who has surely nailed himself into the line-up is Sullivan, whose excellent season has seen him recognised by his team-mates when they voted him in as St Helens' player of the year. Sullivan, like Andy Leathem and Apollo Perelini, has been declared fit - in his case, after a shoulder injury last week.

The final is an especially significant occasion for Cunningham, who has a highly visible opportunity to show that he should retain the hooker's role in the Great Britain side, despite the accolades heaped on his great rival, Bradford's James Lowes, this week. For all Cunningham's quality, which has been re-asserting itself as the season has gone on, and for all the reliability of Joynt, McRae has recognised that his pack is under strength by signing the Oldham pair, Brett Goldspink and Paul Davidson, for next season.

That pack needs to generate the momentum today which can give Long the opportunity to make his sniping runs. Otherwise, the Wigan coach, Eric Hughes, will inevitably have his quiet revenge on the club which fired him almost two years ago.

In the slot that often produces the better match, the Divisional Premiership final will also have a strong St Helens component. Phil Veivers, a winner and a loser in Premiership finals during his long Saints career, captains Huddersfield against Hull and his vast experience will be doubly valuable in the absence of the injured Garry Schofield. There are further Saints connections in the person of Jonathan Neill, their former prop who now packs into the Huddersfield front row, and Craig Weston, the Australian stand-off who is widely linked with a move to Knowsley Road for next season.

But Hull have shown themselves to have Huddersfield's measure this year. Saints past, present and future may all finish as runners-up this time.

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