Rugby League: Leeds have the power for the glory

Challenge Cup final: Edwards' experience may count for nothing if London fail to match a potent pack
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The Independent Online
THE STRONGEST, or at least the most frequent argument advanced in favour of an unlikely London Broncos victory in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final this afternoon is that the Sheffield Eagles did it last year.

The players and managements of both clubs have dutifully reminded us that that game proves that the underdog can have his day at Wembley.

Unfortunately, the detailed comparison of the two situations does not point to a repeat.

Leeds are not Wigan. There has been no sign from Headingley that they are blase about this final, that they are treating it as another day at the office. After 21 years without winning at Wembley, how could they?

There is nobody in their side who has taken away a winner's medal and only two - Richie Blackmore and Francis Cummins - who have played in a final. Unlike Wigan, the hunger is yet to be assuaged, individually or collectively.

Not that Leeds lack relevant experience. Players such as Brad Godden and Marc Glanville have competed at the top level in Australia, while in their 33-year-old stand-off, Daryl Powell, they have one of the most seasoned and knowledgeable elder statesmen in the game - one who has been on the winning side in four visits to Wembley for internationals.

They also have the players who their coach, Graham Murray, before he even knew he was coming to Leeds, described as the best young back and the best young forward in the British game, Iestyn Harris and Adrian Morley. Nothing that has happened during his year and a bit in charge has made him change his view.

His tactical innovations have brought the best out of Harris, at 4-1 the shortest-priced favourite ever for the Lance Todd Trophy, and Morley, now recovered from the thigh injury that has interrupted his season, is quite simply the most damaging runner in the game.

Morley also has a uniquely hurtful pack of forwards around him. In Barrie McDermott, Darren Fleary, Anthony Farrell and the rest, there is more venom than in any other set in the country. Provided they do not let it blind them to the basic requirements, they just look to have too much power.

London found this week that their Wembley suits did not fit. For the sake of their own future and for the national aspirations of game - illustrated in another way by the presence of Dublin and Gateshead in the schoolboy curtain-raiser. It is to be hoped that the occasion does not also prove to be too big for them.

There are reasons to be confident that it will not. They have had a relaxed build-up, treating it like another home game, and they have more Wembley experience than Leeds, in Martin Offiah, twice a Lance Todd winner, Karle Hammond, twice a victor with St Helens, and, very definitely not least, Shaun Edwards.

Playing Edwards with injections and strapping on his broken thumb is clearly a risk, but, on the basis of their form while he has been out, one they have to take.

Nobody knows better than him what it takes to win at Wembley, having done so nine times in 10 finals, and this is the man who played a good slice of another final with a fractured eye socket, an injury that makes this one look trivial.

Provided Edwards can handle the ball without difficulty, his presence on the pitch will give the Broncos an enormous lift, but doubts must remain about the ability of their forwards to match it with Leeds' monsters and give him a platform from which to work.

They punched above their weight and played magnificently against Castleford in the semi-final, but it could be asking too much for them to do that again.

In Steele Retchless they have arguably the biggest-hearted player in the game, but the elevation of Matt Salter to the starting line-up shows how thinly their resources have been stretched by injury this season.

A few weeks ago, he was playing rugby union with West Hartlepool and has had to relearn what he knew about league since returning to the Broncos.

"He has played well enough to show me that he is the man for the job," said his coach, Dan Stains. "It's a tribute to how well he was taught when he was first here."

In Stains, his fellow Queenslander, Peter Gill, and Edwards, London have tough, resourceful people who will reject the popular theory that they are there for a beating.

"We are excited about the occasion, not scared of it," said their chief executive, Tony Rea.

Their chairman, Richard Branson, is equally excited. Overcoming both his natural reticence and his abhorrence of tobacco sponsorship, he will lead the Broncos out. Like Bill Clinton, he will absorb the atmosphere, but presumably not inhale.

Colin Welland on the beauty of rugby league, Review Front



at Wembley

(kick-off, 2.45 BBC1)

Harris, capt 1 Tollett

Rivett 2 Smyth

Blackmore 3 Fleming

Godden 4 Timu

Cummins 5 Offiah

Powell 6 Hammond

Sheridan 7 Edwards, capt

McDermott 8 Salter

Newton 9 Beazley

Fleary 10 Retchless

Morley 11 Millard

Farrell 12 Simpson

Glanville 13 Gill

Referee: R Smith (Castleford)

Subtitutes: M St Hilaire; L Jackson; J Mathiou; A Hay

Subtitutes: G Air; C Ryan; D Callaway; M Toshack