Newlove and Calland centres of attention

CHALLENGE CUP COUNTDOWN: Celebrated Saint meets raging Bull in midfield battle. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
The parallel career paths of two very different centres converge in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final at Wembley on Saturday when the game's most expensive player faces one who has been among its most notorious.

In one corner there will be the Sainted Paul Newlove, a player of such obvious class that the pounds 500,000 his new club paid Bradford for him in November is likely to remain a world record for a very long time.

In the other, Matt Calland, whose reputation suggested horns rather than a halo - he has referred to himself as "the Vinny Jones of rugby" - but who has blossomed into a match-winner with the Bulls since Newlove's departure.

When the two encounter each other at Wembley, it will be blue chip versus blue collar.

Although Newlove would like nothing better than to have the burden of the transfer record lifted off his shoulders, there is no avoiding the pressure that his status brings.

"I've got a reputation for being laid back and not caring, but I don't know where that comes from," he said. "I do feel the pressure of the fee, because every match you are a marked player and everyone expects so much of you. What I really hope is that someone takes over the record fee soon."

Newlove will never be entirely comfortable in the role of the game's superstar, and an extra complication Saints could have done without is his ongoing dispute with News Ltd over a "loyalty" bonus which has seen him withdraw co-operation from that company's newspapers during the run- up to the final.

By his own standards, Newlove has sometimes been a little subdued on the field as well this season, outshone by team-mates like Danny Arnold and Bobbie Goulding. With perfect timing, however, he exploded back into his most compelling form in Saints' final match before Wembley, at Halifax last Sunday, scoring a hat-trick of tries, the last of which - a side- stepping run half the length of the field - made even the most experienced observers' jaws drop.

"He was the difference between the sides. It was as simple as that," the Saints' chief executive, David Howes, said.

"He won it for us single-handedly," adds his coach, Shaun McRae. "He was just superb." For his price tag, he is expected to be.

"He is a world-class player, there's no doubt about that," Calland said. "And sometimes I feel like I've been following him around all my career."

Originally with Rochdale Hornets, Calland was signed by Featherstone as a replacement for Newlove. But where his predecessor had been famous for dazzling centre play and spectacular tries, Calland became better known for his woeful disciplinary record.

In the year before his transfer to Bradford, he was sent off and suspended four times; he was even serving a ban when the Bulls, in a notable act of faith, signed him last November.

If there was scepticism at Saints about whether Newlove was worth half a million, there were doubts in Bradford over whether a player who could not stay on the pitch was worth anything at all.

Worse was to follow. Calland was soon dismissed again for the same fatal flaw of going high in the tackle and banned until the end of the Centenary season. "I needed to have pointed out to me what I was doing wrong," he said. "It was a technical failing. I was getting caught in no man's land and I was throwing out an arm off balance."

The Bulls' coach, Brian Smith, had justified the decision to sign Calland by insisting that his faulty technique could be corrected and much of his enforced lay-off was devoted to doing just that.

The player also worked ferociously hard in training, building up his strength and physique to the extent that, according to Smith, "his mother doesn't recognise him and he's had to throw out all his shirts."

Smith was so impressed by Calland's determination that, once his suspension was over, he threw him straight into the Cup semi-final against Leeds. It looked risky, but the one-time wild man played outstandingly well, as he did in scoring a hat-trick in the Bulls' narrow defeat at St Helens 12 days ago.

"Anyone who can't see that Matt Calland is one of the most exciting ball- carriers in the game isn't using his eyes," said Smith. "I also think we all saw who won the contest between him and Newlove." McRae is philosophical about the comparison that day. "I just put it down as one bad day at the office," he says. "Apart from that, Paul has been very consistent."

It is not that Smith does not rate Newlove, whom he made every effort to sign when he was coach at Hull and the player was about to turn professional. It would take a benighted coach to be oblivious to the danger he presents at Wembley, but he believes that in Calland he has the player to counter him.

"You have to be confident whoever you're up against," the player himself says. "All I can do is my best - and hope that that's good enough."

That best is already better than most judges ever thought it could be. Reformed character and textbook low tackler that he now is, Smith is hoping Calland still has enough devilment in his play to knock Newlove's halo askew on Saturday.