Rugby League: Sheffield's willpower wins them their first trip to Wembley

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Eagles 22 Salford 18

STICKLERS for the old demarcation lines on Yorkshire's sporting map might still claim that they know nowt about rugby league in Sheffield. They are certainly ignorant down there in one respect; they just don't know when they are beaten.

After 14 years of persistence in the largely unglamorous cause of establishing the game in a football stronghold, the Eagles are on their way to Wembley - the first club from outside the heartlands to go there and the first new to the experience since Leigh in 1971.

They are going not because they always played to the highest of the standards they have set for themselves under the coaching of John Kear; they are going because they refused to accept defeat.

With little more than 10 minutes to play and two tries needed, their inspirational captain Paul Broadbent on the sidelines exhausted and others flagging, Sheffield looked beyond recall.

But a little luck - when Michael Jackson's desperate pass ran for Nick Pinkney and Pinkney's kick sat up conveniently for Mark Aston's try - put them in with a chance and Dale Laughton's raw willpower took them over the finishing line.

There could not have been a more appropriate scorer of the winning try than Laughton, the one product of the rugby league wilderness of South Yorkshire in the side. Hampered by injury, he has been something of a bit-part player during his seven seasons with Sheffield. But his performance at Castleford in the last round justified Kear's description of him as "the most improved player in the game" and at Headingley on Saturday he defied a painful knee to somehow find the reserves of strength to propel himself over the line.

It was an effort that typified the Eagles' approach. Pounded by Salford for much of the second half, they hung on and seized victory at the end.

Although Salford's coach, Andy Gregory, regarded it as a match they had squandered, there were things to admire in their display. The veterans, David Hulme and Andy Platt, could not have tried harder; nor could the young backs, Darren Rogers and Gary Broadbent. Then there was the constant promise - never quite realised - of creative fireworks from the Reds' midfield triangle.

Against that, Sheffield specialised in sheer bloody-mindedness and, if the city does not take them to its steely heart now, it never will. The woeful attendance reflects the fact that the Eagles have yet to achieve the popular support they deserve; this must surely be their springboard.

Even in a crowd of under 7,000, one person felt the need to attack Stuart Cummings - who had refereed in exemplary manner - after the full-time hooter.

The League has launched an investigation, but the incident should not be the game's dominant image. That should be of a raw-boned lump of a lad, a late-comer to an alien game, gritting his teeth to claim a slice of history.

Sheffield: Sovatabua; Pinkney, Taewa, Crowther, Sodje; Watson, Aston; P Broadbent, Turner, Laughton, Carr, Shaw, Doyle. Substitutes used: Lawless, Jackson, Wood.

Salford: G Broadbent; Coussons, Naylor, McAvoy, Rogers; Blakeley, White; Platt, Edwards, Eccles, Hulme, Bradbury, Crompton. Substitutes used: Faimalo, Savelio, Forber.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).