Rugby League: Shaken Wigan stirred by right mixture: Dave Hadfield believes that rugby league's double will again find a home at Central Park

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a troubled season at Wigan, who will today clinch their fifth Championship in a row - at Oldham - and will next Saturday win the Silk Cut Challenge Cup at Wembley for the seventh successive year.

Or that is what is most likely to happen, despite the continuing suspicion that all is far from well at Central Park. The apparent contradiction says a good deal about the state of the game at present.

Not one side has been able to take advantage of Wigan's lapses and put the league title beyond them. And, although they have lived dangerously at times on their way to Wembley, it is extremely difficult to envisage Wigan losing now they are back in north London.

There is simply no substitute for the Cup final culture that runs like a rich vein through the side. This will be Shaun Edwards's ninth final - a record - and he is surrounded by players who also know what needs to be done on the big occasion.

Almost as important to Wigan is the introduction of players for whom Wembley will be a cherished and new experience. This year, Sam Panapa, arguably Wigan's most consistent performer this season, and the magnificent 18-year-old forward, Andy Farrell, will start a final for the first time.

Most intriguing is the growing probability that Va'aiga Tuigamala, the former All Black bought earlier this season, will play in the final. Inga the Winger looked baffled by his first few appearances in his new code, but midway through the game against Bradford nine days ago, something suddenly seemed to click. His brute strength continued to win hearts against Castleford last Wednesday. Jason Robinson, who lost his place to Tuigamala because he was suffering from sore feet, will find it difficult to walk back into the first team for Wembley.

John Dorahy, the Wigan coach who many still believe has had enough of the pressures and will leave at the end of the season, has identified the return of Dean Bell as another big reason for the ominously purposeful look that Wigan have assumed in the latter stages of the league season.

It is this proven battle- readiness, spiked with newcomers' freshness, that makes Wigan such solid favourites for the Cup. The only doubts for the Lancastrians must concern the number of Leeds players for whom playing a bad or anonymous final is unimaginable.

Ellery Hanley, provided he has recovered from his hamstring injury, is the on-field leader most players in the game would choose to have on their side at Wembley. Few in this generation have matched his ferocious will to win, which is bound to be at its most intense against his old club.

Kevin Iro can sometimes cut a languid figure in mundane games, but his record of scoring two tries in each of his first three finals with Wigan means he is the most devastating Wembley specialist of his era. Iro picked up a hamstring injury in Leeds' match with Bradford yesterday, as did Graham Holroyd, but both ought to be fit for the final.

With the addition of Gary Mercer, Richie Eyres and Harvey Howard, Leeds have aggression and experience in the pack, and backs of obvious class in Alan Tait and their unlikely converted scrum-half, Garry Schofield. The feeling remains, however, that while Leeds have the individuals to make it interesting, Wigan's collective expertise will win another Challenge Cup to go with another Championship.

Competing, if that is the right word, with them in next season's Championship will be one of the least glamorous teams in the league. The winner of today's Second Division match between Batley and Doncaster will be promoted alongside Workington.

TODAY'S FIXTURES (3.0 unless stated) Stones Bitter Championship Featherstone v Salford (3.30); Halifax v St Helens; Hull v Leigh (3.15); Oldham v Wigan (7.00); Wakefield v Castleford (3.30); Widnes v Hull KR. Second Division Barrow v Ryedale- York (3.15); Batley v Doncaster (3.15); Bramley v Workington; Carlisle v London Crusaders; Highfield v Keighley (at Prescot Town AFC); Swinton v Hunslet; Whitehaven v Rochdale.

Hanley the master, page 10

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