Old-timers to have final say

Saturday's Wembley occasion marks the end of an era in rugby league, but it promises to be business as usual Dave Hadfield believes that Wigan have the desire to rise to another challenge
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AFTER the Championship to end all Championships, what should come creeping along, almost unnoticed, but the Cup final to end all Cup finals. Amid the sound and fury of the Super League, the long-term future of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup and its present status as the climax of the rugby league season, is uncertain.

The final will be played in April next year, but that will be Month One, Year Zero - four weeks into the inaugural Super League. It won't be the same occasion then and it will be even less recognisable in future seasons when, in order to make any sense of the new calendar, it will have to be played later in the year. It will be fitting, then, if Wigan and Leeds can mark the end of an era next Saturday by producing a Wembley classic. There is every chance that they can do so.

There are two rules in rugby league: don't vote for anything until you have read the small print (frequently disregarded); and never bet against Wigan at Wembley (always observed). There is no reason to expect Wigan to fall down on a job that they have carried out successfully for the past seven years. There have, admittedly, been times - like in the aftermath of an uninspiring semi-final against Oldham and during their annual pre- Wembley photo-call last week - when they have looked and sounded just a little bored with the whole thing. But, come Saturday, they will be focused on the task once more.

Part of the secret is that there are always men for whom the experience is fresh. Newcomers come no fresher than the New Zealand utility back Henry Paul, whose ebullience has made him one of the personalities of the season. If ever a young player seemed custom-built for Wembley, he is it. But there are other injections of new blood from Martin Hall, excellent at hooker all season, and, if the winger Jason Robinson does not recover from a broken bone in his foot, Kris Radlinski.

The 19-year-old Radlinski, the grandson of a Polish immigrant to Wigan, has enjoyed a recent run of appearances in the first team, deputising for either Robinson or Martin Offiah, and he has looked another of the club's seemingly endless sequence of gifted young players.

It is the oldies, though, who do much to establish the right Wembley tone. As veterans go, Phil Clarke and Denis Betts are very much in their prime, but with 10 winners' medals between them, their depth of experience of the occasion is invaluable. All the more reason why they want to leave the club - Clarke to Sydney City and Betts to the Auckland Warriors - as the winners they have perennially been.

"Nobody wants to be part of a Wigan team that loses at Wembley," Betts says. "The notoriety of that might even be be greater than the memory of all the victories." It is a variation on the imperative that stops Australians losing a Test series and it ensures that there will never be any question about Wigan's appetite for the big occasion.

And yet, if there was ever a team equipped to give them a run for their money, it is Leeds this year. Last season, Leeds, back at Wembley for the first time in 16 years, got it all wrong but still got within 10 points of the all-time Wembley specialists.

Through a combination of fitness problems and ill-advised foxing, they lost their form before the final. The one thing that all Leeds players are emphatic about is that, with that experience behind them, their preparation has been much better this time.

Their young brigade, especially Francis Cummins and Graham Holroyd, are better players than they were at this stage last season, but again it is the veterans who have contributed much to their Wembley return. Ellery Hanley has adapted superbly to a tailing-off in pace and his ability to be in the right place at the right time is evidenced by his season's tally of 41 tries, a world record for a forward.

Another player in his thirties, Alan Tait, has never performed better than he has this season. His prowess as an attacking full-back has never been in doubt, but some of his cover-tackling has been, if anything, even more impressive and valuable.

Then there is the way that their coach, Doug Laughton, has strengthened his forwards with the addition of George Mann and Esene Faimalo, enabling him to perm them during the match and ensure that his pack finish strongly. If Leeds have a weakness, it is at half-back, where, for all the youthful ability of Holroyd and the vast experience of Garry Schofield, the lack of a genuine scrum-half could catch them out.

That could be the clause in small print that will make the annual bet on Wigan pay off again, but not before both sides have issued a timely reminder of what spring afternoons at Wembley mean to the game.

PROBABLE TEAMS: Leeds: Tait; Fallon, Iro, Innes, Cummins; Schofield, Holroyd; Howard, Lowes, Faimalo, Mercer, Eyres, Hanley. Substitutes: Harmon, Mann.

Wigan: Paul; Radlinski, Tuigamala, Connolly, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Skerrett, Hall, Cowie, Betts, Cassidy, Clarke. Substitutes: Atcheson, Farrell.

Referee: R.Smith (Castleford).