Rugby league: Shaun of pride, shorn of ultimate glory

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The Independent Online
QUITE WHERE a losers' medal will rank in the honours list of Shaun Edwards is a matter of conjecture. His sock drawer is already overflowing with winners' medals, from the Wigan hegemony, but the chance to add a 10th to his collection had proved an irresistible temptation. And for much of a sunlit afternoon at the final Silk Cut Challenge Cup final of the century - and the last at Wembley for the next three years - Edwards' London Broncos fully justified their captain's defiance of medical opinion.

Steele Retchless, an emergency prop, had led the Broncos to Wembley. Yesterday, Steele was undone by Rivett, whose four tries constituted a record for the Challenge Cup and transformed a breathtaking match into a personal autographed page of the Boy's Own Annual. The 52-16 final score pointed to a comprehensive victory by the northern giants and anyone turning on to witness the try blitz of the final 20 minutes might have wondered what Leeds had been doing for the previous 60. Once ahead, Leeds were irresistible, producing a display of running rugby which has rarely been matched in the illustrious history of the tournament. Edwards could do little but watch the show.

A chorus of "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner" seemed to baffle most of the crowd. The support for the newboy Broncos had been notable for its quality than quantity. "I can't hear you" sang Bernard Cribbens to the Broncos fans, most of whom would have had a better working knowledge of byways of Brisbane than the streets of London.

The ratio of yellow-and-blue to red-and-white jerseys accurately mirrored the length of rugby league tradition paraded by the two finalists. After 19 years, the Broncos are hardly fly-by-nights, but the contrast between the two entourages could not have been more indicative. At the head of the London side, the owner Richard Branson sported blue jeans and an open- neck shirt; Leeds were more soberly dressed as befits a day out in the capital.

The most prominent northerner, though, wore the red of the Broncos and carried the most publicised thumb in league history. By rights, Shaun Edwards should have been sat in the stand, nursing a doctor's certificate and two months' sick leave after breaking his thumb and tearing ligaments against Castleford in the semi-final.

But rarely does common medical lore prevail when Edwards has a Wembley final in his sights. After 10 of them and nine victories, you might sense a diminishing of the appetite, but, at the age of 32, Edwards could not resist one last - who would care to say that to his craggy face? - crowning glory. The chance of captaining a side based within the lee of Twickers, in the heart of trendy London country, had instant appeal to a man of Edwards' quirky nature.

Edwards emerged, shaven headed, his right thumb bandaged and cortisoned. All that mattered for a Broncos side short on reserves and Wembley experience was his presence. For all his side's final defeat, Edwards let no one down. One moment scuttling forward into the belly of some brute forward, the next harrying away in defence, if there was any sign of discomfort - and there must have been plenty - none was going to be betrayed to an audience who regard him as a legend. Once, having tidied up behind his own lines, he climbed back on to one knee like a boxer recovering from a count and was revived by smelling salts. By midway through the second half, the Broncos required a bucketful themselves.

Two tries in two minutes, the first by Rivett, the second by Marcus St Hilaire finally broke the London side's resistance. After that, it was simply a matter of coconut shies. Broncos had give their all in an hour of innovative attack and inspired defence which had done enough to provoke thoughts of Sheffield Sharks' suffocation of Wigan 12 months before. Go for it and hang on for dear life was the gist of the Broncos gameplan, and few could argue with either the rationale or the execution.

The Broncos played their hearts out, but Leeds had plenty left in their legs. For Rivett, the afternoon was pure fantasy. For Edwards, the taste of defeat was no sweeter than the first time, more than 10 years ago. Not for him the post-match camaraderie. He walked away shaking his head. Perhaps it was the pain that stopped him shaking hands with too many of his opponents. More likely it was the pride.

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