Rugby League: Widnes rely on family values: Dave Hadfield on the burden Bobby Goulding bears in the Challenge Cup final on Saturday

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The Independent Online
THE short, turbulent career of Bobby Goulding will come of age at Wembley on Saturday in what he regards as his first proper rugby league Challenge Cup final.

The Widnes scrum-half went to the final twice with next weekend's opponents, Wigan, when he was a restless, teenaged presence on the substitutes' bench. Still only 21, this time he will be there with his home-town club, carrying a large share of the responsibility for enhancing his side's prospects against the best-oiled Wembley machine the stadium has seen.

'It will be a very different experience this time,' he says. 'When you play at Wembley for your home-town club, you must get the feeling that all your family and friends are behind you. I must know about half the Widnes spectators by name.'

It has been an uneven, meandering path that has brought Goulding home. A fresh-faced prodigy when Wigan recruited him at 16, for what was then a record signing-on fee for a player from amateur rugby league, it did not take him long to start chafing at the frustration of being unable to force his way past Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards and win a regular first-team place.

John Monie, the Wigan coach, viewed him as a hooker - even then, Goulding was solid and chunky enough to slot into the front row - increasing his dissatisfaction and, in 1991, he moved to Leeds for pounds 100,000.

His wholehearted enthusiasm in a disappointing side endeared him to the Headingley fans but, after a single season, he was on the move again, an incident at a training camp prompting the Leeds coach, Doug Laughton, to unload him.

There were other incidents that punctuated a troubled early career: a controversial, premature departure from Eastern Suburbs in Sydney, an incident in an Auckland restaurant during the Great Britain tour in 1990, and another court case, successfully defended, in Widnes.

The other running theme consisted of Goulding's declarations that he had grown up and seen the error of his ways, but he had earned himself the image of a young man who was frank and friendly for 99 per cent of the time but impossible for the remainder.

Even now, when he points to the stability of his family life - he still lives in Leeds and has a wife and a baby son, Robert junior - and says that he has definitely and irrevocably grown up, you think: 'Oh yes, Bobby, of course you have.'

Not before time, however, the headlines this season have all been concerned with his play, which has been consistently admirable and sometimes exceptional. Goulding has answered doubts about his pace by adopting an organising role that is both muscular and calculating.

His half-back link with Jonathan Davies has blossomed beyond expectations and the pair have been able to prosper on the momentum given them by a pack which, up to and including the semi-final victory over Leeds, looked capable of giving any opponents a torrid time.

Since that dominant performance at Central Park, Widnes have suffered from a bad case of Wembleyitis. It is a disease that traditionally afflicts finalists-in- waiting, preventing them from playing anything but the most slipshod rugby between semi-final and final, and Widnes have had it worse than most.

'It is hard keeping your mind on the job, especially before a Wembley final that carries all this extra significance for me. But Wigan always manage it and it's up to other clubs to do the same,' Goulding said.

The problem any side faces in meeting Wigan at Wembley is finding a way of compensating for their inevitable shortfall in experience of the occasion. Wigan have been there and won for the last five years and, to have a chance, Widnes need to negate that advantage.

'It's a big gap for anyone to close,' Goulding said, 'but I think there's only Widnes that could give them a good game at Wembley, because of the sort of rugby we're capable of playing.'

(Photograph omitted)