Rugby League: Wigan fall to warriors of Sheffield

Challenge Cup Final: Sheffield Eagles 17 Wigan 8
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The Independent Online
By Dave Hadfield

Sheffield Eagles 17 Wigan 8

SHEFFIELD had been quietly informing anyone who would listen ever since their semi-final that they were going to do the business on Wigan at Wembley. On Saturday they were as good as their word and, ultimately, even better than their best friends could have hoped.

"Nobody believed we could do it apart from us," said their inspirational captain, Paul Broadbent, as he struggled out of Wembley under the weight of a cardboard box full of bottles of champagne. That was somehow symbolic of the whole ethos of a team that works together and plays together and, on the day, possessed a cohesion that Wigan sadly lacked.

It would be too easy to conclude that the red hot favourites simply failed to fire and fell down on the job. True, Jason Robinson has never been kept as quiet in a big match, Andy Farrell had the sort of game which proves that even the greatest players are human and none of their front- row permutations ever remotely matched the vigour of Broadbent and his partner, Dale Laughton. But John Monie, coaching a side to defeat in the Challenge Cup for the first time in his career, insisted that there had been nothing wrong with the preparation or the attitude of his players. They had simply been outplayed by a better side on the occasion. The side with everything to prove had proved it conclusively.

The winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, Mark Aston, articulated how it felt to be vindicated after being largely ignored even in their own city. "Now Sheffield people are going to have to start believing that they've got a great rugby league team in their city," he said.

The empty seats at the Sheffield end of the stadium were witness to the fact that too few of them have yet grasped the idea. They have two chances this week to show that the realisation has dawned; first when the Eagles return home with the cup, the next when they are at home to Wigan in the Super League on Saturday.

"They've got to start getting behind us now," Aston said of the reluctant public who kept Sheffield's average home gate below 4,000 last season. "We want to see 10,000 there when we play Wigan on Saturday."

The slow progress of the struggle to establish the code in a football mad city has been a disillusioning experience at times. Under their founder, Gary Hetherington, the Eagles toyed with the idea of relocating to Leicester or Doncaster. Eventually, Hetherington adopted the alternative strategy of moving on himself, to Leeds, although he was at Wembley to savour the Eagles' greatest ever day.

Even in the build-up to Saturday's final, there were whispers that they are considering moving to ground-share with Rotherham United next season in a tight, atmospheric stadium as opposed to the cavernous Don Valley stadium.

"It will be a sad day if we ever leave Sheffield," said Aston. "But they've got to show that they want us."

If the long-serving Aston and Broadbent were appropriate heroes at Wembley, then one of Sheffield's most recent arrivals, the much travelled Dave Watson, also had a superlative game. Watson was in everything, producing some of the game's most telling tackles as well as popping up constantly in attack.

"I've never had a feeling like this before in a rugby league side," he said. "We were so focused that we could have played anyone and beaten them."

The absolute unity of the team was a tribute to John Kear, the first British coach to win at Wembley since Malcolm Reilly - with Kear as his assistant - in 1986. Kear has had his critics who have thought that his previous playing and coaching record made him something of a lightweight at Super League level, but those who knew him realised that his man-management is of the very highest calibre.

His triumph was a major boost for the standing of British coaches in a game often dominated by antipodeans. Kear paid tribute to the brand leader of those antipodeans, Monie, for his graciousness in defeat. Both Monie and Farrell took it on the chin, admitting that they had come second best in a contest played throughout in the most exemplary spirit with hardly a foul of note.

The manner of the victory made Sheffield's achievement even better news for a game that can only thrive on a strong element of unpredictability. The whole of rugby league, not just the citizens of Sheffield, owes them a debt this week.

Wigan Warriors: Radlinski; Bell, Connolly, Moore, Robinson; Paul, Smith; Mestrov, McCormack, Holgate, Betts, Haughton, Farrell. Substitutes used: Gilmour, Cowie, Cassidy, O'Connor.

Sheffield Eagles: Sovatabua; Pinkney, Taewa, Senior, Crowther; Watson, Aston; Broadbent, Lawless, Laughton, Carr, Shaw, Doyle. Subs used: Turner, Jackson, Wood. Substitute not used: Stott.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

Was Saturday the greatest rugby league shock ever? Four other contenders

Leigh 24 Leeds 7

Challenge Cup final 1971.

Leeds were packed with internationals, the league leaders for the last three seasons, and were unbackable favourites at Wembley. But Leigh had Alex Murphy, at the height of his wiles, and Leeds' captain, Sid Hynes, became the first man to be sent off at Wembley when he poleaxed him. Leigh won with the help of four drop goals, then worth two points apiece.

Featherstone 14 Hull 12

Challenge Cup final 1983.

Hull were the Wigan of their day, with three New Zealand Test stars in their backs and forwards like Steve Norton and a young Lee Crooks. Featherstone, by contrast, were so home-

grown that all but one of their team lived within five miles of their ground. David Hobbs had the game of his life in the second row and Hull, to this day, have not won at Wembley.

Australia 12 Great Britain 26

Third Test, Sydney, 1988.

Britain had not beaten the Australians, home or away, for 10 years and nobody remotely expected them to break that sequence with a patched-up side in this match. But, with the Test series already lost, unheralded players like Phil Ford and Hugh Waddell produced magical performances and Ashes Rugby was fanned back into life.

New Zealand 22 Australia 16

at North Harbour, Auckland, 1998

Just eight days before Wembley, the Kiwis produced an equally astonishing result against a powerful Australian side, following the game's reunification there. Pessimists talked of a record defeat and the effect it would have on rugby league in New Zealand but, aided by Henry Paul playing at hooker, the Kiwis tackled superbly and took their chances.