Saints aiming to stifle Wigan

Dave Hadfield on the Boxing Day rugby league fare

The race for the Stones Bitter First Division championship could be either compressed into an intriguingly tight contest or stretched into a virtual formality by today's results.

St Helens can do themselves and everyone else a huge favour by beating Wigan this morning, in a match that should attract a capacity 17,000 crowd despite an unseasonally early kick-off to suit Sky television.

Wigan will still be without Phil Clarke, sidelined since the third Test with ankle ligament damage, but that is outweighed by the glad tidings over Denis Betts, who has escaped suspension, and Jason Robinson and Martin Hall, who should both be fit.

Saints will have Scott Gibbs back in the centres, but the prospects of Alan Hunte and Paul Loughlin returning are less certain.

There have been times this season when Saints have once more looked capable of the sort of irresistible rugby that produced a scarcely believable 41-6 triumph over Wigan the last time the Christmas derby was staged at Knowsley Road, two years ago.

A repeat of that scoreline might command odds that would make the National Lottery look a sure thing, but Saints could just spring the surprise that, combined with Leeds' win over Wigan two weeks ago, would take the championship into the new year as a live proposition rather than a stuffed turkey.

The question then will be whether the sides massed in Wigan's slipstream can get through the festive season without slipping up.

Leeds should survive at Hull, although playing this most acrimonious of fixtures in the special atmosphere of a bank holiday could give an injury-hit Humberside team an important lift.

Castleford should, in theory, maintain their momentum at the expense of their neighbours, Featherstone, but Halifax and Bradford Northern, third and fourth respectively, meet in one of the day's best-balanced fixtures.

The mooted transfer of Paul Round from Halifax to Northern and his possible debut today would give the game an extra edge, but Castleford have complicated the picture by also showing interest.

Andy Currier, Featherstone's former Great Britain centre, is the subject of interest from Warrington, who could use their Welsh internationals, Kevin Ellis and Rowland Phillips, as bargaining counters.

Both are on loan to Workington Town and in line to play today against the club making the longest journey, Wakefield Trinity.

Warrington themselves will welcome back Jonathan Davies and Allan Bateman against Widnes and also have their captain, Greg Mackey, fit to continue his long ever-present run.

On a day of influential returnees, Widnes should have David Hulme back in action for the first time since the early days of the season, and Andy Gregory will resume for Salford against Oldham after a shorter absence.

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