Rugby League: Hail Sheffield of dreams

Challenge Cup final: Eagles thrive on the Kear factor as the worried warriors of Wigan are overpowered
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Sheffield 17 Wigan 8

Tries: Crowther Tries: Bell

Pinkney, Turner Goals: Farrell (2)

Goals: Aston (2)

Pens Aston

Half-time: 11-2 Attendance: 60,669

THE Sheffield Eagles, the side even their own city did not seem to want at Wembley, yesterday produced the steeliest of displays to win a compelling Silk Cut Challenge Cup final against all the odds.

The least fancied finalists for some 15 years proved everyone wrong in a classic triumph of the sporting underdog. They took their chances, harried Wigan into a succession of uncharacteristic mistakes and defended unyieldingly when necessary.

"The only people who believed we could do it were the people in the North dressing room," said their coach, John Kear. "But they were the only people that mattered."

Sheffield's spirit and self- belief was evident from the start as the Wembley debutants settled far more quickly than the club there for the 26th time. Kear had said that he would have been delighted to hold Wigan to 0-0 after 20 minutes. Instead, they were 4-0 up after only five.

Their opening try came as water started to pour down from the Olympic Gallery on to the VIP seats to the left of the royal box. That was not the only thing to spring a leak, because Wigan were caught out by Sheffield's first attack.

Keith Senior, Paul Carr and Paul Broadbent all carried the ball strongly and when Broadbent was halted near the line, the eventual winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, Mark Aston, put an angled kick into the corner for Nick Pinkney to out-leap Jason Robinson and score. Aston could not convert but it was still a stunning start for the rank outsiders.

Wigan seemed to have doubts from then on. Andy Farrell's kicking game has rarely been less effective and they were guilty of a rash of handling errors.

"They just weren't used to being under that sort of pressure," Broadbent said.

Sheffield's only really nervous moment came when Waisale Sovatabua allowed Farrell's kick to bounce and he then had to scramble it dead. That apart, the Eagles were utterly composed.

They were also dangerous whenever they had a chance to attack. "They defended very well, but I thought they played well all over the park. They always looked good with the ball in their hands and I can't take anything away from them," said the Wigan coach, John Monie, experiencing defeat in the Challenge Cup for the first time.

When Sheffield claimed their second try, they were helped by a basic error that showed that all was not well with Wigan. Danny Moore played the ball back to nobody in particular and when Aston dived on to it the overwhelming favourites' defence was deep in trouble once more. Although Doyle's final pass bounced, it sat up perfectly for Crowther to score in the corner, Aston this time converting.

Farrell at least managed to open Wigan's account with a penalty after Tony Smith had been held down, but Sheffield could have been even further ahead, Crowther's interception from Gary Connolly sending him on an 80- yard run only stopped by the busy Kris Radlinski. Sheffield kept probing away and only failed to add another try before half-time when Senior passed straight into touch. They had to settle, on their next possession, for an extra point from Aston's drop goal but it was still an extraordinary scoreline.

Half-time could, in theory, have given Wigan a chance to regroup, but the force remained firmly with Sheffield after the break, the run of the ball and an inspired substitution both working in their favour.

Sovatabua's speculative pass went into touch but via Mark Bell's arm to give Sheffield the scrum feed and six more tackles in Wigan territory. When Broadbent was stopped near the line, Darren Turner burrowed his way through only four minutes after coming on to the field.

Wigan at last broke through the stubborn Sheffield defence five minutes later, gaining possession when Senior committed one of the Eagles' rare handling errors and finally moving the ball via Henry Paul, Denis Betts and Lee Gilmour for Bell to score, and Farrell to land the conversion from the touchline.

There was still time for Wigan to salvage the match, but they were thwarted by some wonderful last-ditch defence, notably from Dave Watson. And even when Wigan applied sustained pressure, they could not score again.

Farrell did get over the line and clearly thought that he had grounded the ball but the try was disallowed and Sheffield were destined to hang on to their lead.

Their delight at the end was infectious, particularly because their unlikely victory is so good for the game. Those who had come to Wembley prepared to write off rugby league as a one-team sport were left speechless.

There were only around 6,000 Sheffield supporters at the stadium to see their team's memorable triumph and the gate was the smallest for a final since 1946. Those from South Yorkshire and beyond who stayed away chose the wrong final to miss, because this will go down as one of the most unforgettable, both for the unexpected result and the manner in which it was achieved.

Broadbent, who carried the cup into the press conference afterwards like a man who never intended to release it from his grasp, said: "Everyone said we were just turning up. We had a belief in ourselves; no one else gave us an ounce of credit.

"It was good for us that people were talking about record scores. That suited us, because Wigan started to believe the press they were getting."

Wigan: Radlinski; Bell, Connolly, Moore, Robinson; Paul, Smith; Mestrov, McCormack, Holgate, Betts, Haughton, Farrell. Substitutes used: Gilmour, Cowie, Cassidy, O'Connor.

Sheffield: Sovatabua; Pinkney, Taewa, Senior, Crowther; Watson, Aston; Broadbent, Lawless, Laughton, Carr, Shaw, Doyle. Substitutes used: Turner, Jackson, Wood. Not used: Stott.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

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