Rugby League: Youth hounds the heels of experience: Cummins and Edwards claim contrasting records in the Challenge Cup final. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
IT is entirely in tune with what will surely stand as one of the greatest of rugby league careers that, as one record falls from his grasp at Wembley on Saturday, he will set another.

When the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final kicks off at 2.30pm, Shaun Edwards will cease to be the youngest player to take part in the premier event of the season.

That distinction, by the margin of a single day, will pass to Francis Cummins, the Leeds wing, who will be 17 years and 200 days old this Saturday.

At the same instant, the Wigan scrum-half will become the first player to appear in nine finals at Wembley, the stage that has seen him grow from child prodigy to elder statesman. It is a record neither Cummins nor anyone else is likely to equal.

'I don't remember much about 1984. It seemed to be over in a flash,' Edwards said of his first appearance and, thanks to Widnes, only defeat in the final. 'All I can recall is Joe Lydon's backside disappearing down the touchline.'

Two tries from Lydon, then with Widnes but later a Central Park team-mate, beat Wigan, with Edwards at full-back, that day.

Wigan had waited 14 years for that Wembley appearance, so any idea that they would be going back almost every year thereafter would have seemed far-fetched in the wake of that disappointment. But they have come to be linked to the stadium and the event almost as if by umbilical cord, and Edwards' personal highlights there would have been enough to illuminate several careers, not just one.

There was the all-time classic of 1985 against Hull, the extra thrill of captaining the side against Halifax in 1988 and playing on despite a shattered eye socket against Warrington in 1990 - one of the final's most memorable feats of courage.

Edwards is not one of those players who claim airily that records mean nothing to them. Few have matched his keen sense of the history of the game and of his own place in it. Moving one ahead of his old partner and rival, Andy Gregory, as Wembley's most frequent visitor is not wasted on him.

There is, however, a touch of Sobers and Lara in the way he is handing on the mantle of being Wembley's youngest player to Cummins. When calculations revealed that the youngster from Dewsbury would break his old mark, Edwards was genuine enough in expressing the hope that Cummins would avoid every player's pre-Wembley nightmare of a debilitating injury that would keep him out of the match.

Ever the competitor, though, he admitted to wishing that the final was not being played quite so early this year. The usual May date would have left his record intact.

For Cummins, the whole thing is a happy blur. When he was signed to Leeds' progressive and demonstrably successful apprentice scheme at the start of the season, there was none of the fanfare that accompanied the arrival of Edwards, the schoolboy player of his generation, 10 years before. He expected a few reserve-team outings to be the realistic limit of his ambitions by this stage. But, midway through the season, he burst into what was then an unsettled first team and has been there ever since.

'I never expected anything like this and taking the record from such a great player as Shaun Edwards makes it even more of a special occasion for me,' he said.

Cummins, whose duties still include cleaning the senior players' boots, comes from a rugby league family so big that they need their own bus to get them to Wembley. Among his numerous uncles is Brendan Cummins, who had a long career as a forward with Batley, and Francis's father, Michael, even had trials with Wigan.

His progress is all the more remarkable because, as a schoolboy stand-off, he has had to learn the nuances of the wing position from scratch. Like Edwards, his career is likely to bring him closer to the centre of the action as it rolls along and gathers its own momentum.

'He has plenty of speed and he has done very well to make the progress he has,' said Edwards, whose own close relationship with the Leeds club - he still socialises with Ellery Hanley and has numerous other friends in the city - always leads to conjecture whenever his Wigan contract expires, as it does at the end of this season.

Win or lose, the man who has made Wembley a second home will be able to assure young Cummins of one thing - the excitement does not fade away at the same time as acne. It is just as good at 27 as at 17 and Wembley is every bit as sweet the ninth time around.

(Photograph omitted)