Rugby League: Paul plans final flourish

Departing Wigan players find an extra incentive in today's rugby league Grand Final
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OF ALL the contrasts between Leeds and Wigan, opponents in the inaugural Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford this evening, the most startling is in their continuity next season.

As many as six Wigan players could be elsewhere; Leeds have re-signed their entire first-team squad. You might think that would give them the edge in stability and commitment tonight. And you might be wrong.

The most remarkable aspect of Wigan's late-season form is that it has been achieved on the backs of so many players who have been told, in the nicest possible way, that they are not wanted.

Henry Paul has been revitalised since finding out for sure that the club would not be pushing out the boat to retain him. The two Australians, Mark Bell and Robbie McCormack, have, if anything, been more effective since learning that this will be not just their last game for Wigan, but the last match of their careers.

Terry O'Connor, who will be with Halifax next season, had his best game of the year - against Leeds two weeks ago - as he came to terms with the fact that he too will be moving on. It now looks more likely that Gary Connolly and Stephen Holgate will be back next season, but neither they nor anybody else are sure.

Of those in the departure lounge, it is Paul's loss that is most controversial with Wigan supporters. He and John Monie have never got on, so the writing has been on the wall since the coach's return to Wigan, but Paul has done his best to embarrass him by playing his best rugby for two years over the last couple of months.

"The only way I'll have a lump in my throat at Old Trafford is if we lose," he said. "I'm not the sort of player who gets emotional about things like that. My plan is to go out on a high."

Whether Paul will go off to play alongside his brother, Robbie, at Bradford as a winner will depend to a large extent on the outcome of his contest with a very different stand-off: "Daryl Powell is one of those guys you hate to play against. He's all bones, elbows and knees and he's hard to get around, because he sticks on you like a jellyfish."

If Paul was a sea creature, he would be some brightly-coloured tropical fish, which sometimes swims in circles, but which can also cut the water like a knife. He has had some marvellous games, as well as some aimless ones, in his four years with Wigan, and it would be in character if he produced one of his memorable performances today.

Among all the imminent Wigan departures, there is one return tonight. Mick Cassidy, suspended for six matches for an horrendous tackle on Adrian Morley when they met Leeds in the league, is brought straight back into the squad.

"John told me that I was in contention if I kept myself fit. I'm just glad he kept faith with me," he said.

Despite that incident, Cassidy and Morley are good friends off the field and the Wigan man knows that Morley could hold the key to Leeds' chances. More than any other forward in the competition, Morley worries opponents with the damage he can do in both attack and defence. In his own way, he is as important to his side as Iestyn Harris.

Wigan's kicking game kept Harris relatively quiet in their last meeting, not by forcing him into mistakes, but by working him so hard in his own 25 that it took the edge off his attacking game later in the match.

His opposing captain, Andrew Farrell, will be trying to achieve the same effect again, but a wise coach like Graham Murray will have noted what happened that day and will have some adjustments in mind.

It is not just the two teams and their tactics that will be on trial at Old Trafford, however. The whole concept of the play-off series and the Grand Final will be under scrutiny. The signs in the early play-off games were not good. Crowds were disappointing and fears that the public had not warmed to the new structure looked well-founded. A week ago, Super League would privately have been pleased with an attendance of 25,000 today.

All that has changed since Leeds confirmed their place in the final. The queues at Headingley on Sunday night were the first evidence of that, followed by the blocked switchboards both there and at Super League headquarters this week.

The hope now is for a gate of more than 40,000, although the psychologically significant figure is 42,043 - the best-ever for the old-style Premiership final at Old Trafford.

If Leeds and Wigan can attract more than that and they produce a match of the intensity of which they are capable, the Grand Final will genuinely be something bigger and better than we have seen before.

Wigan: Radlinski, Robinson, Connolly, Moore, Bell, Paul, Smith, O'Connor, McCormack, Mestrov, Gilmour, Holgate, Andrew Farrell (capt). Substitutes: Cassidy, Haughton, Cowie, P Johnson.

Leeds (probable): Harris (capt), Rivett, Blackmore, Godden, Cummins, Powell, Sheridan, Masella, Newton, Fleary, Morley, Anthony Farrell, Glanville. Substitutes: Mathiou, Holroyd, Hay, St Hilaire.

Referee: Russell Smith (Castleford).