Rugby League: When the Eagles did the unthinkable at Wembley

Ten command performances that lit up 1998
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The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD EAGLES were the longest-priced outsiders in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final for years, so to beat Wigan - and do so with something to spare - ranks as one of the year's most memorable sporting achievements.

Not even their home city seemed particularly enthused by the prospect of the Eagles at Wembley, judging by the empty rows at their end of the ground. But John Kear and his players believed that not only could they win it, but that they definitely would; and that is the way they played from the start, with their prop forwards, Paul Broadbent and Dale Laughton, tearing into Wigan like it was the only match of their lives.

That, perhaps, sums up the difference between the two sides on the afternoon. Wigan, despite an unaccustomed two year absence from the big day, were relaxed to the point of treating the occasion as routine. Sheffield were ferociously keyed-up, but also managed to be the more cohesive and organised side.

Mark Aston, their long-serving scrum-half, won the Lance Todd Trophy for the way he outmanoeuvred Wigan and particularly the way his kicking game put Andy Farrell in the shade. It might equally well have gone to Dave Watson, an unreliable maverick of a player with a chequered career in three countries. Kear took a calculated risk by bringing him on board and he was a vital contributor at Wembley, both with his last-ditch tackling and his ability to run the ball at the opposition.

Neutrals have rarely been as happy at Wembley as they were when Sheffield ran out 17-8 winners. It was impossible not to warm to a good bunch of blokes and a genuinely worthy club as they staggered onto their bus with cardboard boxes full of champagne. But what of the medium-term consequences of such a remarkable afternoon?

Well, hopes that their achievement would win over the doubting and indifferent mass of the Sheffield public have not yet been fulfilled. More predictably, when the two teams met again in Super League the following weekend, Wigan crushed them 36-6. Not entirely surprising, either, to those who have seen comparable circumstances applied before, was that victory led almost seamlessly into disintegration. Of Sheffield's Wembley squad, at least six will not be with the club when next season begins.