Widnes this afternoon face what is, statistically, the most hopeless task in British sport. Despite declaring a whole series of players fit yesterday after a week of bluff and physiotherapy, there remain severe doubts over whether they have a chance of breaking Wigan's awe-inspiring run of five victories in the final of rugby league's Silk Cut Challenge Cup.
Small wonder that the Wigan players who visited Wembley yesterday looked comfortable, even blase, about the place and spent much of their time there sunbathing. They know that it will take something extraordinary to beat a side as well-tuned to its particular demands and pressures as they will be today.
During their semi-final victory over Leeds, Widnes looked to be the side that might finally extend Wigan. Since then, they have gone into a slump which has included five defeats in their last six matches and which recalls the pre-Wembley form of the other sides Wigan have beaten in the final - Halifax, St Helens twice, Warrington and Castleford.
All have come into the final off the boil; all have been beaten, for practical purposes, within the first half- hour. If any of the Widnes players are not fit, they will be found out quickly.
Stuart Spruce, John Devereux, Andy Currier, Darren Wright, David Myers and Kurt Sorensen have been having treatment this week. Having them in the starting line-up is more than their coach, Phil Larder, dared to hope for earlier this week.
'If there were any doubts about any of them, they wouldn't be playing,' Larder insisted, although he did admit to some relief at not having to deny Sorensen a first Wembley appearance in the final match of an 18- year professional career. 'It would have been very hard to tell Kurt that he wasn't playing,' he said.
With the loss before this week of Paul Moriarty and Emosi Koloto with long-term injuries, Sorensen is the Widnes forward most likely to break the Wigan defensive line. Despite his admirable fitness for a man of 36, however, there must be doubts about his ability to last a full 80 minutes, especially if Wembley is as hot and humid today as it was yesterday.
That points to some role in proceedings for the substitute forward, Steve McCurrie. It could also be significant that the substitute back, Julian O'Neill, does not expect his flight from Australia to have been entirely wasted. He is not wishing the worst for any of the starting backs, but he anticipates being needed and could yet become the first man to win a Challenge Cup and a Sydney Grand Final within a year of each other.
In a composed, relaxed Wigan camp that really does live up to John Monie's maxim of 'business as usual', the one slight surprise yesterday was the presence of the 17-year- old Andrew Farrell on the substitute's bench ahead of Neil Cowie. It should not have been any great shock, because, well as Cowie has played recently, Farrell's form since he broke into the first team three matches ago has been little short of outstanding.
Farrell could become the youngest- ever Wembley winner; Shaun Edwards, today's scrum-half and elder statesman was more than 18 and a half when Wigan beat Hull in 1985. 'I'll settle for that,' Farrell said. 'John Monie always uses his substitutes, so I know I'll be involved.'
The other question concerning the Wigan side was settled with the naming of their regular centre and captain, Dean Bell, at loose forward, where he is equally comfortable and influential. Phil Clarke moves to the second row and there is room for Joe Lydon in the threequarter line.
Monie said that Sam Panapa could be regarded as unlucky to miss the starting side, but his presence on the bench gives Wigan extra flexibility if changes are needed.
Both teams have potential matchwinners - Devereux and Jonathan Davies for two on the Widnes side - but all logic points to it being Wigan's seasoned qualities which will decide the issue. In that connection, a national tabloid may not have done Widnes any favours by running a screaming headline suggesting that Martin Offiah is all washed up. His team-mates knew exactly what to do with that; they pinned it on his hotel door and Offiah was still muttering about it at Wembley yesterday.
Rugby league needs Widnes to defy the odds at least to the extent of providing Wigan with a real contest, but it should be Offiah and his team- mates who have the final word just after four o'clock.
Devereux tuned for return, page 48
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