Rugby League: Half-back measures drive Leeds

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The Independent Online
THE half-back pairing that Leeds field in this afternoon's exquisitely balanced Challenge Cup quarter-final tie against Bradford Northern raises an unexpected question: are scrum-halves really necessary?

During Garry Schofield's absence with an ankle injury, Graham Holroyd - barely 18, but wise and skilled beyond his years - played so well at stand- off that even the Great Britain captain and No 6 has not been able to shift him.

The result is that Schofield has returned at scrum-half, leaving Leeds with no specialist in that position, but with room for two high-class stand-offs at different stages of their careers.

It could be a clue to the next stage in the evolution of the game. The decline in the importance of the scrum means that one role has already become blurred: Wigan and Bradford are among the teams who have used a non-specialist at hooker this season, while James Lowes at Leeds and Richard Russell at Castleford are both players who have been converted into hookers.

If you no longer need a specialist to win the ball, do you really need one to feed it in?

'It's more a matter of having great players in positions where they are near the ball,' the Leeds coach, Doug Laughton, said. 'And Holroyd is only a kid, so playing outside Schofield will teach him a lot.'

Having two stand-offs in the side has done Leeds nothing but good in providing inviting running opportunities for their three-quarter line. It is when Kevin Iro, Craig Innes and the rest come charging on to the ball from deep that they are at their most impressive.

Holroyd and Schofield in tandem also guarantee a varied kicking game, but what may make the crucial difference is the new, combative spirit in the Leeds pack.

In the right mood, Leeds are capable of outplaying anyone - even a side in Bradford's impressive league form. But Bradford have such an ability to escape from impossible situations - there are no two players better at it than Paul Newlove and Dave Watson - that it is hard to pick the winner at Headingley this afternoon.

The other ties are, on the face of it, easier to predict. Despite recent uncertainties, Wigan ought to beat Featherstone at home, while Doncaster's adventures should end at St Helens.

TODAY'S FIXTURES (3.0 unless stated) Silk Cut Challenge Cup quarter-finals Leeds v Bradford; St Helens v Doncaster; Wigan v Featherstone. Stones Bitter Championship Salford v Halifax. Second Division Batley v Huddersfield (3.15); Bramley v Dewsbury; Carlisle v Highfield; Hunslet v Ryedale-York (3.30); London Crusaders v Barrow (3.30); Swinton v Whitehaven; Workington v Rochdale.

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