Rugby League: Bradford have the hunger

RUGBY LEAGUE CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: St Helens v Bradford Bulls, Wembley Stadium, 2.45pm

There will be no landslide result at Wembley today. Bradford and St Helens - out on their own as the best sides in the British game - are too well-matched for that and victory in the Challenge Cup final could hinge on marginal factors.

Of the two, the Bulls have had the smoother preparation. They have not had the disruption of a key player such as Alan Hunte remaining in doubt until the day of the match, nor of the bizarre notion that Scott Gibbs should be snatched back from rugby union to replace him.

Hunte played so well before his hamstring injury two weeks ago - especially in conjunction with the excellent Karle Hammond - that the temptation to wait until the last minute for him to recover is understandable.

"Alan has been doing some running and there have been no side-effects," said the Saints coach, Shaun McRae, at Wembley yesterday. "He has not been flat out, but there are enough signs to give him another 24 hours. If the match was today, I would be extremely unlikely to pick him, but it's improving rapidly."

If Hunte does not make it, McRae must choose between Andy Haigh and the explosive Vila Matautia to fill the gap in the centres. The chances are that he will opt for the young Haigh, leaving Matautia in the role in which he has done the most damage, coming into the fray as a substitute at some stage.

McRae's other decision concerns the Australian second-row, Derek McVey, who has not played since damaging ankle ligaments on Good Friday.

McVey has had every treatment known to medical science in a bid to get fit, including herbal infusions and manipulation. In purely physical terms, he is regarded as fit, but his lack of any match practice makes it likely that he too will start on the bench.

Bradford have had to rule out Jon Scales, but most of Matthew Elliott's problems this week have centred on how best to use the talent at his disposal. His solution - although one he might yet vary - involves Glen Tomlinson playing at scrum-half, with Robbie Paul, man of the match and hat-trick scorer last year, moving to stand-off.

In a sense, it is a matter of secondary importance where Paul plays. His is the sort of untrammelled genius that would shine through if you stuck him at open-side prop and it will be on Saints' ability to control him that much will depend.

The big difference from last year is that Paul now has more creative players around him, notably the hooker, James Lowes, and the loose forward, Steve McNamara.

That gives the Bulls a brains trust in midfield that any side would envy. Throw in the influence that Graeme Bradley invariably exerts over proceedings and Bradford look suspiciously like a Cup-winning side.

The biggest danger to that theory comes from their former player, Paul Newlove. He made a slow start to the season, but has shown signs recently of getting back to his best at the ideal time.

Newlove seems to play best when he is feeling grumpy and he has looked that way of late. He was the only Saint who declined to stick around for pre-Wembley interviews last week and was in abrasive and unstoppable mood against Castleford in his last outing.

Man for man, however, Bradford have the greater desperation for victory today. No-one is hungrier than a Wembley loser a year later, with the possible exception of players like Tomlinson, Lowes and McNamara who were signed too late to play in the 1996 final.

Both sides are capable of winning a close game off the bench, but an educated guess at who might do so this year leads to Bradford's Paul Medley, who has never been more effective in his long career than he is now as a shock weapon.

It might be too much to expect a match as compelling as last year's classic, but everything points to a gripping contest decided by factors like these. A missing star - or one not at his best - or an inspired substitution late in the game could prove enough to swing it.

Non-scientific sampling methods point to these sides sharing the spoils of the season, starting with Bradford lifting the Cup today, possibly after a recount.


Probable teams

Stuart Spruce Full-back Steve Prescott

Darren Peacock Winger Danny Arnold

Graeme Bradley Centre Alan Hunte

Paul Loughlin Centre Paul Newlove

Paul Cook Winger Anthony Sullivan

Robbie Paul Stand-off Tommy Martyn

Glen Tomlinson Scrum-half Bobbie Goulding

Brian McDermott Prop Apollo Perelini

James Lowes Hooker Kieron Cunningham

Bernard Dwyer Prop Julian O'Neill

Sonny Nickle Second row Chris Joynt

Simon Knox Second row Chris Morley

Steve McNamara Loose forward Karle Hammond

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes). Kick-off: 2.45 (BBC1).

Substitutes: Ekoku, Calland, Medley, Reihana.

Substitutes (from): Haigh, Pickavance, Matautia, Northey, McVey.

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