Rugby League: Widnes banking on Wembley

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IF IT is possible for a Challenge Cup semi-final to mean more than it normally does to those taking part, then the meeting of Widnes and Leeds today falls into that category.

Widnes's acute financial problems would make a trip to Wembley sustaining as well as mouth- watering; it would make the difference between their present precarious existence and buying time to regroup for the future. It is already a tribute to the club that its cash problems have been kept separate from its steadily improving fortunes on the field.

'Throughout our unbeaten run, talks have been going on with the players about the financial position,' Phil Larder, their coach, said. 'But those talks have always been held away from the ground. In the dressing room and on the pitch, money has never been mentioned.

'We have to keep it that way for this match, although the pressure on us is much greater. We have to put the financial implications right out of our minds.'

Larder will be without two members of a pack which have proved highly effective during the 10 matches since Widnes were last beaten. The power and physical presence of Esene Faimalo and Paul Moriarty will be missed, but Larder had already made the decision that the combative David Hulme would return somewhere in the side.

'David is the sort of player I want in any game, but the bigger the occasion the better he plays, so I definitely want him for a semi- final,' he said.

All Widnes players know that the only way they can put their personal finances back in order after accepting pay cuts is to win this afternoon. If the match has an even greater significance for any of them, it could be for the former Leeds scrum-half, Bobby Goulding, and for Kurt Sorensen, who has his last chance to reach Wembley.

The Leeds scrum-half, Andy Gregory, passed fit after a back problem, has played in a record eight finals, three of them with Widnes. He is one of a number of Leeds' recent signings who are already into the veteran class, and therein lies the urgency for them today.

For all their recent surge in the league, the only way Leeds can justify their outlay on older players is to reach Wembley this time. It is unrealistic to expect players like Gregory and Ellery Hanley to be quite the same force this time next year.

Leeds will be without one Challenge Cup specialist today in Kevin Iro, Vince Fawcett coming in on the wing and Simon Irving moving to centre. Like Iro, Andy Goodway, who would have been one of the substitutes, has a hamstring injury.

Larder is being careful not to read too much into Leeds' one defeat in their last 11 matches, at the hands of Wigan 10 days ago. The fact that their run ended while Widnes's is still intact suggests a slight psychological edge, however, in what should be a close and intriguing match.

The Rugby League Supporters' Association, which is laying a wreath at the League's headquarters in Leeds today to mark 'an end to the dreams of expanding the game', has also sent out an open letter calling for the game to be taken out of the hands of club representatives. The editors of the game's three specialist publications are among those to sign the letter condemning the decision this week to contract the present set-up of 35 clubs in three divisions to one of two divisions with 16 clubs in each.