Rugby League: Smith's timing suits Monie

TONY SMITH will time his return for his first Super League match of the season perfectly this weekend with the visit of his old club. The Wigan and Great Britain scrum-half has been out for 11 weeks after breaking his ankle in the pre-season friendly at Halifax, but takes his place against Castleford tomorrow.

That is welcome news for the Wigan coach, John Monie, after a second Super League defeat of the season, at Halifax last week, left them bracketed with Cas on eight points - already four behind the leaders, St Helens. "It will be a great relief to have Tony back," Monie said.

"It has been very tough for Greg Florimo to settle in without our regular half-back, but hopefully they will start to strike up a partnership."

Monie is still short of bodies elsewhere in the team, with Phil Jones making his first start on the wing and the Academy winger, Liam Bretherton, making his debut appearance on the bench.

Elsewhere, the usual pre-Wembley question applies of how the finalists will be affected. The London coach, Dan Stains, does not believe that the big occasion looming explained his side's 40-8 thrashing at Wakefield last week. "We lost sight of a lot of things that we have been doing and I include myself in that," he said. "I feel responsible for the result, and there has been a lot of soul-searching this week. We have got to go back to doing the things that made us successful."

For this evening's home game against Warrington, he is without the suspended Robbie Simpson and the injured Peter Gill - both of whom will be available for Wembley - but has Rob Smyth back in the team, auditioning for the roles of winger and goal-kicker in the final.

Leeds' Graham Murray, on the other hand, admits that his players have been affected by the impending occasion. "I thought I could avoid it," he said, but the evidence of some unconvincing recent form is that neither he nor they can.

For all that, they should be too good for Huddersfield, whose two recent wins have not greatly impressed their coach, Malcolm Reilly. A clutch of Leeds players, including Daryl Powell, Marvin Golden and Andy Hay, will be out to demonstrate their fitness.

Leeds' immediate priority is not to fall any further behind Saints, who should not be threatened too seriously by Hull, who are still without a win. Their coach, Ellery Hanley, was critical of Saints' display against Sheffield last week, but he has Paul Newlove back. Tommy Martyn is likely to miss out with a shoulder injury, with Paul Wellens, one of several young Saints who have repaid Hanley's faith so far this season, standing in.

The other side without a point, Salford, have a difficult task at improving Gateshead, while Wakefield, whose two wins so far have already exceeded the gloomiest pre-season predictions, are at Sheffield tomorrow night.