Rugby League: Leeds in positive position

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A BLEND of youth and experience that has proved potent in this competition should be enough to take Leeds into their first Wembley final since 1978. The Headingley side have flattered to deceive so often since then that even their best friends would hesitate to put their life savings on them in their Silk Cut Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens today.

But Doug Laughton has finally put together something close to the side that he wants. The know-how of players like Ellery Hanley, Alan Tait and Richie Eyres was expensive to acquire, but, if Leeds can win at Central Park this afternoon, it will be money well spent.

Two other elements have been vital to Leeds' cup successes this season, however. One is the fiercely combative approach of forwards of the ilk of Harvey Howard, Gary Mercer and Gary Rose. Opposing packs no longer look forward to an undemanding appointment with a league of gentlemen.

Equally important has been the injection of youthful optimism and enterprise from the precociously dominating Graham Holroyd and from Francis Cummins.

A third product of Leeds' long overdue concentration on developing their own young talent, Marcus Vassilakopoulos, misses out on a place on the bench. Laughton prefers Jason Donohue, a scrum-half on extended loan from Leigh.

David Lyon returns at full-back after missing Saints' last match as a precaution, but the decision to start with George Mann can only be classified as a gamble. Mann has been out for more than three months since injuring his knee, but his coach, Eric Hughes, knows that he needs at least one of his impact forwards on deck if Saints are to make telling breaks. Mann's return forces a reshuffle in the pack, with the young hooker, Tommy Hodgkinson, unlucky to lose his place after some good performances.

There is another dimension to this match. Three times in the last seven years Saints have won through to Wembley only to be beaten, twice, with embarrassing ease, by Wigan. There could be a tiny voice in their ear suggesting that a honorable semi-final defeat would be preferable to another public humiliation on 30 April.

Leeds have been away a long time. There would be no such reservations even in their subconscious and that makes them better potential finalists and the likelier winners today.

Leeds: Tait; Fallon, Iro, Innes, Cummins; Holroyd, Schofield; Harmon, Lowes, Howard, Mercer, Eyres, Hanley. Substitutes: Donohue, Rose.

St Helens: Lyon; Hunte, Ropati, Loughlin, Sullivan; Martyn, Griffiths; Dannatt, Dwyer, Mann, Joynt, Pickavance, Cooper. Substitutes: Veivers, tba.

Referee: J Holdsworth (Kippax).