Rugby League: Bare truth for Monie men

Andrew Longmore sees the unfancied achieve a stunning victory for self-belief
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The Independent Online
FOUR minutes from time, a strange sound echoed round Wembley. It came from the bare quorum of Sheffield Eagles fans, augmented by a few fly-by-night devotees of the underdog. Eagles, Eagles. Opposite, barely able to comprehend the systematic demolition of their heroes, all was silence. What happened to those nostalgic Wembley afternoons when the only unknown was the margin of victory?

Wigan might have recalled their talismanic coach, John Monie, and put the band back together, but time is not so easily lassooed. Sheffield came with a purpose and they stuck to it with unrelenting courage, through a final quarter of last-ditch tackles and desperate defence. Monie, defeated for the first time in 26 cup matches, had not practised this bit. First, he stuck his hands in his suit pockets as Sheffield lifted the cup, then, along with Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and Gary Connolly, he joined in the applause. The Eagles demanded that ovation. Unkindly, for there will be better days ahead, a few jeers marred Wigan supporters' acknowledgement of their own side. For once, the road back to Wigan will be paved with sorrow. In their hearts, they could not question the result.

"We told everyone we could do it," Mark Aston, the linchpin of the Eagles victory and man of the match, said. "We believed when we got through the semi-final, with hard work and determination, we would get to the top. Now we're there." The view will be special too for a club founded amid some controversy and even more adversity just 14 years ago. Spare a thought for Gary Hetherington, the former player, whose strength of character saw the Eagles through a rocky first patch. Hetherington is at Leeds now; his wife, Kath, a former president of the Rugby Football League, stayed loyal to the dream. But both would have wiped away the odd tear.

This was not just a good result for Sheffield. The game needed new names. Bradford Bulls and St Helens have carried the torch in the Super League; Sheffield have shown what can be done with an unbreakable team spirit, a "unity of belief" as their coach, John Kear, put it. "There are no cliques in our dressing room, no back-stabbing," Paul Broadbent, the inspirational Eagles captain, said. "We are all mates on and off the field. Everyone will die for the cause."

Wigan will go away and analyse a terrible defeat. They will do it in the Monie way, quietly and efficiently. Others will pay, that much is sure. Naming a team 10 days before the final, as Monie did, looked like confidence before kick-off, but smacked of complacency afterwards. Wigan, lured into defeat by odds of 14-1 on, forgot aboutthe glorious uncertainty of sport. Their game was littered with elementary errors.

Sheffield came as journeymen and fall guys, the unwanted finalists from a city renowned for soccer, steel and stripping. Crowds at their Don Valley nest last season averaged just under 4,000, roughly the same as AFC Bournemouth. The rows of empty seats at the Sheffield end told of the difficulties of shifting sporting allegiance and, more tentatively, of the lingering sense of disorientation caused by the switch of seasons. The crowd of 60,669 was the lowest for a cup final since 1946. Those that stayed away missed a remarkable upset, the greatest in rugby league history. Only Sheffield truly believed they could win and they have a pounds 50 betting ticket - at odds of 25-1 - to prove it.

"We had a team meeting last night," Kear said. "It was one of those special moments in sport because when I left the room I knew what would happen. We walked out of the tunnel 10 feet tall." From the moment Nick Pinkney leapt above Robinson to score within the first five minutes, there was mischief in the air. We waited for the counter but, apart from a 10-minute spell midway through the second half, nothing came. Wigan were stunned by the intensity of Sheffield's effort, by their organisation and discipline.

The third try epitomised the extraordinary shift of power. A bread-and- butter titbit try by Darren Turner, the result of pressure and sheer brute force. The sort of try Wigan score in their sleep. "We'd rehearsed it all in our minds, meeting the dignitaries, walking out, receiving the first kick," Kear added. "It was a true case of mind over matter and unity of belief. Our name was on that cup." The team had stripped near naked for the tabloids in midweek. Yesterday, it was Wigan who were laid bare.

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