Rugby League: Why London must win the battle of hearts

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The Independent Online
AFTER THE glories of the Five Nations' Championship the clear message to rugby league is "follow that". And the fact that the great climax between Wales and England took place at Wembley will put pressure on Leeds and London Broncos to produce a stirring show at the stadium on Saturday.

I've enjoyed my rugby league Challenge Cup excursions with BBC Grandstand over the past months and the standard has been superb since the start of the Super League. Unfortunately, the League games don't get the same exposure, being on Sky TV, so the game has slipped right out of the limelight in these last couple of weeks.

I saw some cracking games over Easter but the attention of most sports fans has been elsewhere and the boys in action at Wembley this week have the responsibility of putting their game back on the map again. The onus will be doubly great on the Broncos because not only are they up against the undoubted favourites for the match, but they also have the extra job of giving a much-needed boost to the game's popularity in London.

It may be asking too much to expect them to create another big surprise so soon after Sheffield's shock victory over Wigan last year, but they certainly have the ability to do so. There was a double edge to Sheffield's giant-killing act. It gives hope to every underdog, but at the same time it kills off any chance of complacency among the bigger clubs.

Certainly, Leeds will be on their guard and London will get no comfort from studying the path their opponents have taken to Wembley. Leeds have beaten Wigan, St Helens and Bradford, so no one can question their right to be there. On the other hand, London will take heart from Leeds' reputation as the biggest under-achievers in British sport over the last 10 years.

They are one of the best-established clubs, with a large and loyal following and an excellent ground, but in recent years they have continually threatened glory without actually delivering much. I have a great respect for their Australian coach, Graham Murray, and he seems to have turned them into real prospects. Whereas they have long been star-packed, they tended to perform as a collection of individuals. Murray has moulded them together so that they perform more as a unit. Now they have good individuals who operate within a sound team structure.

Ryan Sheridan is an excellent scrum-half, and although Iestyn Harris has settled at full-back they can push him forward to stand-off if required. They have strength in the centres, where Brad Godden is in fine form, and the backs benefit from a big, strong pack in which Lee Jackson is performing exceptionally well since his return from Australia. Adrian Morley and the Australian Mark Glanville help to give the team a strong back-bone in which the defence has been shored up tightly.

I fancy that Leeds have slackened off a little since they have reached the final, but once they finish their business at Wembley they are capable of making a charge for the Super League. With the backing of Virgin, the London Broncos have all the incentive they need to do well. Even if they fall short of winning the trophy they must produce a performance that will capture some southern hearts.

Under Dan Stains and Tony Rae they have made promising progress this season, but the biggest job of their coaches is to make them believe they can win.

That task will be a lot easier if Shaun Edwards plays. His broken thumb is not the easiest injury to ignore but I'll be very surprised if he doesn't take part. He knows more than anyone how important this occasion is to the future of the Broncos and, as no other player in the game is as familiar with Wembley and its demands as he is, his presence is vital.

They have match-winning players in Martin Offiah, the former All Black John Timu, Peter Gill and the hooker Rob Beazley. With so many Australians in their team, they will not lack the right attitude. Their injury problems have been horrendous recently, but their spirit has been tremendous and that is going to ensure we get a storming match. You have to favour Leeds very strongly but do not forget how much we fancied Wigan last year.