Rugby League: Challenge Cup Final: Innes and outs of Inga's education: Two former All Black team-mates face each other at Wembley today. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
WEMBLEY will be the unlikely scene this afternoon of a reunion between two players whose links go back to their Auckland schooldays.

Craig Innes and Va'aiga Tuigamala meet up again, as they have hoped since the turn of the year that they would, in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final. There was never any doubt that Innes would be a key member of the Leeds back line, but Wigan's choice of Inga the Winger represents one of the most intriguing selection gambles Wembley has seen for years.

Tuigamala gave Innes two years' start in rugby league and it seemed, during Tuigamala's faltering early steps in the code, that it would take him at least that long to catch up. It looked as though the warning given to him by Innes, a team-mate from Auckland schoolboy representative sides right through to the All Blacks, was going to prove all too accurate.

When Wigan approached Tuigamala last year, it was to Innes that he turned for advice. 'Inga rang me wanting to know what it was all about,' Innes recalls. 'I told him the truth - that it was going to be hard for him. I told him it would take him a long time to settle into rugby league. It takes everyone a while and some players just need to be brought along slowly.'

Tuigamala gave every appearance of falling into that category. From his first training session, under the inquisitive eye of the biggest turn- out for a union signing since Jonathan Davies, the heavyweight Samoan looked woefully out of condition. Even after an intensive course of physical conditioning - 'The hardest work I've ever done,' he said at the time - the occasional burst of activity in his first few matches following an unannounced debut at Widnes left him blowing and wheezing ominously.

Worse than that, a man who stood to earn around pounds 400,000 from Wigan managed to give the impression of never having seen a rugby ball before. The season ticket holders in the Popular Side stand did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Suddenly, midway through the second of the two Championship- deciding clashes with Bradford a couple of weeks ago, the penny seemed to drop. Chivvied and bullied by Wigan's playmaker, Shaun Edwards, Tuigamala found something that he could do.

'I think he was getting sick of Shaun's voice in his ear,' his coach, John Dorahy, said. 'He could still hear him, telling him what to do, when he went home at night. There was a risk that it might not have a beneficial effect, but over the last couple of games it certainly has had.'

What Tuigamala has discovered is that, if he does not yet have the timing to contribute much from wide positions where he wreaked so much havoc, particularly in the early days of his All Black career, he can follow the sound of Edwards's voice, take a short ball and make any opposition work hard to stop him. One quality he has, beyond dispute, is awesome natural strength.

Whether that should be enough to project him into a Cup final in only his 10th game of rugby league, ahead of a proven league winger like Jason Robinson, who has been left out of the squad, is a moot point. Even Tuigamala did not expect it to happen. Patience has been his key word since his arrival in January. He talks about Robinson and Martin Offiah as masters of a craft that he does not yet understand and even now, on the eve of Wembley, he admitted: 'I still have a lot to learn about the rules and tactics.'

Dorahy, aware that any uncertainty today will be another stick to beat him with, has no doubts about his temperament or his talent. He talks of his vision and his ability to make the sort of hard yards upon which, rather than the long, wide breaks of a Robinson or an Offiah, he expects the game to hinge. Dorahy does not see it as a gamble. Virtually everybody else does.

Innes, by contrast, has become a rock-solid, blue-chip proposition in the two and a half years since Doug Laughton, league's most successful raider from union, tracked him down in Northampton. Once he sorted out a few early positional problems, Innes was always going to look the part and his running in the centres is some of the most impressive to be found anywhere.

Unlike Tuigamala, Innes played some league during his schooldays and always got up in the early hours of the morning to watch the Challenge Cup final live from the other side of the world.

As with most converts, the prospect of playing there himself was a factor when it came to switching codes, but he has made a point of giving Wembley a wide berth until now. 'I decided I wouldn't go unless we were playing there,' he said. 'When I went, I wanted it to be special.'

His parents have flown from New Zealand to be there today, along with the expanding Tuigamala colony from Lancashire, including a brother-in-law who plays for St Helens and a younger brother who has been playing in Wigan's lower grade sides.

And for Innes, Wigan's gamble on the player he warned not to be in a hurry makes the scene complete.

(Photograph omitted)

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