Rugby League: Sheridan learns his pack drill

Dave Hadfield finds a spell up front transformed Leeds' scrum- half
FOR A specialist scrum-half, a banishment into the boilerhouse of the forwards might seem like a bad career move, but Ryan Sheridan believes that it has been the making of him.

Sheridan, who will line up for Leeds in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final against the London Broncos at Wembley on Saturday, has a fair claim to being the most dramatically improved player in the game this season. Much of that, he says, is down to being shunted to hooker last year. "It did me the world of good, because I started to know what forwards want from a scrum-half," Sheridan said.

Graham Murray, the coach who came up with that temporary switch, also has reason to reflect on its success. "I told him at the time that I didn't think he was a hooker, but that he wouldn't lose anything by it," Murray said. "The forwards say to me now that Ryan bosses them around and you can't get higher praise. They want to be told what to do and he's now got the confidence to do that."

The emergence of Sheridan as one of the most influential players in the country has been a big factor for Leeds on the road to Wembley, enabling them to shake off the suggestion that they rely exclusively on Iestyn Harris to direct them and create their attacking impetus.

Sheridan comes from Dewsbury, the west Yorkshire town that produces more than its share of players for Leeds, including Francis Cummins in the present team. At 16, Sheridan was snapped up by the Sheffield Eagles, but his five years there saw him struggle at times to escape from the shadow of Mark Aston, the veteran scrum-half who was man of the match

in the Eagles' shock Wembley victory over Wigan last year.

Sheridan was at a training camp in Tunisia with Leeds at the time, but still had sufficient gut feeling for his old club to phone home for a result that did not seem to figure on Tunisian television. "I phoned my mum and she told me the score. I didn't believe her and she had to tell me again, I was that surprised. But I was delighted for them."

Quite apart from any sentimental attachment to Sheffield, that result looms as a warning of unpredictable pitfalls, because Leeds are, if anything, even more overwhelming favourites for this year's Challenge Cup than Wigan were last year. Sheridan added: "It just shows that you can't take teams for granted. It's how much desire you have on the day, how much you want to win that cup. That's why Sheffield did it last year. I've watched it since and they wanted it more on the day."

Sheridan is involved with Leeds this year - rather than Sheffield last year - because of Gary Hetherington. The founder of the Eagles moved across to Leeds in 1996 and brought a nucleus of Sheffield players with him, including Sheridan, Dean Lawford and Anthony Farrell. "It was quite funny the way it happened. I was in the gym and everyone told me I was off to Leeds. I was the only one who didn't know about it," Sheridan said.

Not that Sheridan objected to a move to one of the potential powerhouses of the game. Although he grew up in Dewsbury admiring Wigan more than any other club, Leeds was always the big-city, glamour club on the horizon.

Like a few of Hetherington's other signings, it took a while for the logic behind it to become apparent. It is only this season that he has graduated from being a reliable squad member to becoming a central figure in the way the team play. That was seen perhaps to best effect in his man-of-the-match performance as Leeds knocked Wigan out of the Cup.

"But the thing is to be consistent - to keep up that standard week after week. I had a good off- season on the weights and I've learnt so much this season from Graham - a lot of it about things you wouldn't even think about."

It has not come as a surprise to Murray. "It's been a natural progression for him; he's just been getting better and better," said the Leeds coach, a skilful and intelligent half-back himself during his playing days in Australia. "He's still got that little bit of individual flair about him, but he works so well for the team now."

That combination could see Sheridan, still only 23, pushing for international recognition at the end of this season - and that is a target he has consciously set himself. "My first aim is to carry on playing well for Leeds, but obviously I'd like to play internationally," Sheridan said. "There are a lot of good scrum-halves around, like Sean Long at St Helens and Tony Smith coming back for Wigan. And Shaun Edwards has got buckets of experience."

Quite apart from the 25,000 fans from Leeds who will be making the trip down the M1 next weekend, there will be a few southern voices raised on Sheridan's behalf as he goes into battle with Edwards, who is doubtful with a broken thumb, or Glen Air. "I've got a lot of relatives in London and they're all going to be there."

With Ryan Sheridan and his friends from the north, they have every prospect of being part of Leeds' first Challenge Cup triumph for 21 years.