Rugby League: Challenge Cup Focus: Powerful engine tuned for return: John Devereux, the Widnes winger, has a score to settle at Wembley today. Dave Hadfield on a rugby league survivor


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The Independent Online

A mistimed tackle last Sunday came within a nerve-ending of denying John Devereux the chance to wipe out the memory of the missed tackle that ruined his only other visit to Wembley.

Devereux will play for Widnes against Wigan in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final this afternoon with the memory of his personal disaster for Great Britain against Australia in last October's World Cup final still fresh in his mind.

'It was fantastic to be part of the World Cup squad and to get on as a substitute in the second half,' he recalls. 'People had told me about the atmosphere at Wembley and I can only compare it to playing for Wales at the Parc des Princes.

'The only disappointmemt was missing that tackle when we were ahead and could have held on to win. I mistimed it; I was standing just a little bit inside him and I was beaten by the pass. The rest, as they say, is history.' Steve Renouf scored the try for Australia, who went on to win

10-6, and Devereux has never been allowed to forget it. 'Every top player has had a day when he misses a particular tackle. Unfortunately for me, it was that one in that match. I've been ribbed about it ever since.'

If you could choose your way to rehabilitate yourself after a glaring public mistake like that, it would surely be by returning to the same stadium a few months later against opponents who are far hotter favourites than Australia were. For most of this week, however, that prospect was receding. Again, a defensive technique that does not quite match his dazzling attacking prowess was responsible.

In the first half of Widnes' Premiership tie against Leeds, Devereux went across to tackle his opposing winger, Simon Irving. 'It was a badly timed tackle and I just caught my shoulder wrong. I've banged that shoulder before and all sorts of things were going through my mind.'

At first it was feared that Devereux had trapped a nerve, which would have put his participation today in severe doubt. It gradually emerged that the injury was confined to severe bruising, leaving him to reflect on the difference between his luck and that of his Welsh team-mate in both union and league, Paul Moriarty.

Moriarty, for a player who looks close to indestructible, has suffered a crippling series of injuries, but finally seemed to have put the latest - involving knee surgery and a broken finger - behind him last week only to break his arm in the Leeds match. 'You just don't know what to say to someone in that situation,' Devereux said. 'There's nothing you can say. I had my share of injuries in union, but compared to him I've been very lucky.' Widnes regard themselves as lucky, too, that the player their coach, Phil Larder, calls 'the form winger in the country this season' will be able to play on the right flank today.

From a spectator's point of view, this sets up the most intriguing Wembley wing confrontation for years - between Devereux and his former team-mate, Martin Offiah. The contest is unlikely to be a stalemate, as each is perfectly equipped to exploit the loopholes in the other's game.

Offiah has the speed to nip past Devereux - and indeed anyone else - especially if the Welshman's positioning leaves any leeway. Conversely, Devereux has the raw power that more conventionally secure tacklers than Offiah find difficult to deal with. Offiah could go round Devereux; Devereux could go through Offiah. No player has ever scored a hat-trick of tries in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley - although Offiah came within a disallowed touchdown of one last year; it is possible to visualise either, or both, of the two men who will share a touchline this afternoon doing so.

'I wouldn't catch him over a hundred yards,' Devereux said, as though there might be someone who could. 'It has to be a team effort to stop him getting clear and, without giving too much away, that's what we've been working on.'

That is what they have been working on, in as much as their fitness problems have enabled them to work on anything this week. Larder, by his own definition a stickler for intensive preparation, has been frustrated at every turn. Which throws Widnes back into the position of relying on the flair and instinct of players like Devereux, Jonathan Davies and Bobby Goulding.

Before his injury last Sunday, Devereux tore out of defence on a 70-yard run to set up a try for Davies. Even after he had damaged his shoulder, he forced his way over in the corner for a try from Goulding's pass that few other players could have scored.

As Devereux knows all too well, it is hard to predict what he will achieve this afternoon. It could be another embarrassment, but it could also be a couple of surges of his power that will upset the odds completely.

(Photograph omitted)