Reliability is Hall's hallmark

REGAL TROPHY FINAL: Wigan look to a slick exponent of traditional hooking skills to oil the machine against St Helens; Dave Hadfield assesses a relatively unsung powerhouse whose skills are vital for more high-profile team-mates
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Wigan's team will always include players considerably more eye- catching than Martin Hall, but there is an argument for nominating the hooker who plays against St Helens in the Regal Trophy final today as the glue that holds the whole thing together. The good news this week for both Hall and Wigan is that the glue is sticking with the club, at least for the first Super League season.

Hall had been due to join the Australian Rugby League when his current contract expires in June. However, in the first concession of its type, the ARL have decided to let him play out the season at Wigan.

"It's what Wigan wanted and it's what I wanted and I'm delighted that the ARL have decided to let me carry on at Central Park for the time being," Hall said. "It's a weight off my mind, although I'm still looking forward to going to Australia in 1997."

It could simply be that the ARL are having trouble placing a specialist hooker who, unlike many other Wigan players, is not particularly well- known on the other side of the world. If clubs there were more fully aware of what he has to offer, the ARL attitude might not be so generous.

Take last week's semi-final against Leeds, for instance. There were top drawer contributions from high-profile players like Shaun Edwards and Gary Connolly, but the choice for man of the match - and a popular one at that - was Hall. Not only had he popped up with the first try, blowing open what had been for 20 minutes a tight contest, but his work-rate throughout had been a major strand in the way Wigan capitalised on that advantage.

Even when official recognition does not come his way, the Wigan coach, Graeme West, and team-mates like Edwards frequently go out of their way to highlight his contribution; a team man, for whom glue is just one analogy, the oil in the engine being another. And yet Hall's position at Wigan has never been the most secure.

Originally signed from Rochdale Hornets almost exactly three years ago as an understudy to the then Great Britain hooker, Martin Dermott, Hall got his chance to establish himself in the first team because of the other Dermott's dreadful run of injuries. Even then, there were some, inside and outside the club, who hankered for Dermott's creative skills as almost an extra half-back, rather than Hall's more direct approach.

Dermott is now fully fit again and lurking ominously on the substitutes' bench, his breath on the back of Hall's neck. But that is Wigan for you; there is usually a tempting alternative waiting in the wings if your form dips below the excellent for a week or two. "There's always competition for places - you accept that," Hall said.

If he was the sort to suffer from insecurity, he would also have noted with concern that Wigan were instantly linked with the Halifax hooker, Paul Rowley, when he was put on the transfer list at pounds 250,000 last month. Wigan were quick to stress that they were more than happy with their hooking situation, but the way the rumour mill immediately whirred into action underlined the inevitable lack of any long-term guarantees.

Hall comes from a subtly different school of hooking from the mercurial Rowley or today's opponent, Saints' Keiron Cunningham. Both of those players are capable of doing things that would have been unthinkable for hookers a decade ago, like going almost the length of the field for a solo try - as Cunningham did against Warrington on Sunday.

Hall will not do that. But he will be there to support a half-break and keep a move flowing when it would otherwise die. He is often the one player to read a surprise thrust through a defence by Edwards or Henry Paul and the one who gets there to give him the options he needs.

Hall and Cunningham are not just opponents in club rugby, they also have what Hall calls "a friendly rivalry" for the hooker's shirt in the Welsh side. Not that there is anything very obviously Welsh about the Oldham-born Hall, who threw in his lot with Wales as part of the mass defection by the entire Wigan front row.

Hall kept Cunningham - eight years his junior - at bay during last autumn's World Cup. In the process, he showed that he can prosper at international level as well as on the big domestic occasion for Wigan.

On another in the endless series of those occasions, at Huddersfield this afternoon, he can show that he is hallmarked by his own particular qualities, whether he is playing for Wigan, Wales or some club, as yet unnamed, in New South Wales.