Rugby League: Central role for Wigan's Chester

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ALTHOUGH THIS weekend will be overshadowed by the final game at Central Park, there are other important issues to be resolved elsewhere.

The most emotional event of the season sees Chris Chester start at stand- off for Wigan for the first time against St Helens. Tony Smith is still missing with a groin injury and Wigan abandon the ploy of playing Andy Farrell in the role after just one week.

Saints could use their new recruit from Halifax, Des Clark, somewhere in their squad, but the key question is which side will cope better with the heightened and rather unreal atmosphere of the occasion.

Andy Goodway will be urging them to keep their minds on immediate business, but Wigan's players would be less than human if they could shut out the wider significance of the day. Whether it will inspire or distract them is the imponderable.

Castleford can finally make sure of their place in the play-offs if they beat Halifax. They will be without Francis Maloney and Nathan Sykes, but Richard Gay returns and a win will make them all but mathematically safe, whatever Gateshead do against Wakefield.

Huddersfield's win over Halifax last week means that victory at Sheffield today will make them safe from relegation, if Hull fail to win at London.

The Huddersfield coach, Malcolm Reilly, could be without last week's match-winner, Dean Lawford, who has damaged a shin in training, but will otherwise field an unchanged team. The change he will hope to see is a new confidence engendered by Lawford's late drop goal and the lifeline it has given them. If he is out, Reilly will reshuffle his backs to put Gene Ngamu at scrum-half.

"I've noticed a psychological difference this week and Dean is one of the players who has given us more direction," said Reilly.

Peter Gill, such a skilful and dedicated stalwart for London over the past five seasons, will take his aching body into a well-earned retirement at the end of this season, so this will be his final home game.

Shaun Edwards, who would have been part of a parade of Wigan luminaries at Central Park, is otherwise engaged, making what has become a rare first- team appearance for the Broncos.

The first weekend of play-offs in the Northern Ford Premiership sees Featherstone go to Leigh in the "sudden death" match. Featherstone, last year's beaten Grand Finalists, have come with a late surge, while Leigh, among the pace-setters all season, have lost some momentum with injuries.

In the other match, Hunslet and Widnes compete for the right to meet the league leaders, Dewsbury, next week on the fast-track route to the Grand Final. What all five contenders have in common is a determination to press for a Super League place if they win the Premiership title.