Rugby League: Challenge Cup Final: Leeds ill-prepared to break Wigan stranglehold: Hanley's hamstring passed fit for Wembley showpiece but holders' experience makes them firm favourites. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
IF THEY are to win at Wembley for the first time in 16 years today, Leeds must unravel two strands of recent rugby league history. The first is the fact that there has never been a side who have handled the occasion better than Wigan, who have won the Silk Cut Challenge Cup for the last six years and are favourites to do so again this afternoon.

The second is the lesson of experience that sides who turn off their rugby like a tap after their semi-final seldom manage to turn it back on for Wembley.

Leeds fulfilled all the cynical expectations yesterday when they named a full-strength side, including the indispensable Ellery Hanley, for the final.

By design or misfortune - and Leeds are considering legal action of their own if the Rugby League tries to punish them again for fielding a deliberately weakened side - this line-up has had little serious match practice of late.

That is a contrast which only strengthens the confidence of the Wigan coach, John Dorahy. 'We have had very hard, competitive games during the run-in for the Championship, so we will be going into Wembley in an uncompromising mood,' he said.

'I will be a lot less nervous than I was when I was here as a player with Hull KR in 1986, because I know that our preparation has been as good as it can be.'

Dorahy has drawn on the experience of his senior players in keeping the preparation very much along the lines of previous years, although with a little fine-tuning of his own. He also claims success in insulating the players from the continuing tremors of club politics, exacerbated this week by his chairman throwing doubt on his future.

Those with a truly Machiavellian turn of mind will even see in Shaun Edwards' agreement to a new, three-year contract further evidence that Dorahy is not going to be around next season.

That no doubt looks a bizarre state of affairs to those outside the game, but in Dorahy's native Australia it is not as uncommon as it is here for a coach to be at loggerheads with various factions within his club and still be successful.

Dorahy's last fitness doubt cleared up yesterday, when Andy Platt recovered from a virus that had stopped him training for two days. Kelvin Skerrett's knee has also limited his participation, but that is par for the course at this stage of the season.

The fitness news that everyone was waiting for when Leeds finally arrived for a Wembley walkabout was, of course, that concerning Hanley. To nobody's surprise, he will play. 'He trained and came through OK,' the Leeds coach, Doug Laughton, said. With Hanley dropping hints this week that he intends to devote more time to coaching, it may even turn out to be his final game.

Marcus Vassilakopoulos, one of three Leeds teenagers on duty today, is a replacement loose forward if needed, but Laughton said that he would have been one of the two substitutes in any event, so not too much should be read into that.

The precedents for any risk Leeds might be taking with Hanley's hamstring are mixed. In 1991, the player himself, then with Wigan, was in doubt until half an hour before the kick-off but came through to make a major contribution to the 13-8 victory over St Helens.

A less happy antecedent is that of Dorahy's Hull Kingston Rovers team- mate, Gavin Miller, who eight years ago played with a damaged hamstring that had been kept secret. He was hardly capable of raising a run.

The moral of that is that the most serious Wembley injuries are often the ones you hear least about beforehand.

Laughton knows that Leeds would be nowhere near Wembley without Hanley and that they rely heavily on him today. That is not to say that they are a one-man side. They have players, from Alan Tait, Kevin Iro and Garry Schofield in the backs to Harvey Howard and Gary Mercer in a pack that will be strengthened further next season by the signing of George Mann from St Helens, who are capable of memorable Wembley performances.

The question is whether, after such a disjointed preparation, they have the collective ability to overturn Wigan's honed expertise.

At Wembley yesterday, the Wigan players who have not walked that way before, practised, in a light-hearted way, going up to the Royal Box to receive the Cup. It would take something extraordinary from Leeds to send them back empty-handed today.

Tuigamala's education, page 48

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