Rugby League: Laughton hopes for last laugh

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IN ITS own way, Sheffield Eagles' clash with Wigan at Central Park this afternoon is as important to them as their meeting at Wembley in May. Victory in the Challenge Cup final was the biggest day in the Eagles' history. Repeating it today would put them within sight of the play-off position that was a more realistic ambition at the start of the season.

"It's a big weekend for several teams," said their coach, John Kear. "If Wigan win this week, they will just about clinch top spot. But if we win and either St Helens or Bradford drop points, we will be just one point off the five."

With Saints and Bradford meeting at Knowsley Road tonight, the incentive for Sheffield is obvious, but Kear said that they were trying to approach their trip to Wigan in a low-key manner. "We've won five and drawn one of our last seven matches and I feel we're a better team than when we won the Cup. We've learned to play under pressure and we're asking more questions of defences than we did. Part of that is having to play without Mark Aston during his absence.

"That made other players take on more responsibility, although it's good to have him back now because you know that, if you are up against it, nine times out of ten he will make the right decision."

Another bonus for Kear has been the resurgence of Bright Sodje, who was bitterly disappointed when he was left out of the Wembley squad, but is now going some way to making up for it with nine tries in his last five matches.

"He has as good a strike rate as anyone in Super League," Kear said. "He was obviously disappointed at missing Wembley after playing well in the semi-final, but someone had to make way for Keith Senior, who is the best centre in the competition. Bright has worked very hard since then. He is as quick as anyone at the club and he has learned how to support on the inside."

Another leading contributor to Sheffield's improved Super League form - and one for whom today's game at Wigan will be of extra significance - is Dale Laughton. The Barnsley-based prop was a transfer target for Wigan earlier this season, but Kear was so keen to keep him that he let it be known that if Laughton was to be allowed to go, he would go too.

Sheffield did the right thing by their coach by making the extra financial effort to retain Laughton, as they did in the case of the at present injured winger Matt Crowther, who was in heavy demand from rugby union clubs.

If players of their calibre had gone, then Kear would almost certainly have said yes to St Helens when they approached him about their coaching vacancy next season. "A club like St Helens are bound to interest you. They are one of the great clubs of rugby league and it's very flattering. But we are building something very good here in Sheffield," Kear said.

It is Kear's ability to draw the best out of players that underpins that building - something that Laughton, maybe more than any other, can vouch for. Laughton's vastly improved form under Kear's coaching was one of the key factors in the Cup run, but he has not always found it easy to impose himself since then. "He has been to see me about the way that he gets more closely watched these days," Kear said. "That's bound to be the case, but there's one or two things that we're working on that will help."

The fact that Laughton plays for Sheffield rather than Wigan today boosts the Eagles' quiet confidence, although a 36-6 defeat at the Don Valley Stadium the week after Wembley will warn against turning that into complacency.