Super-charged Wigan

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The Independent Online
Challenge Cup final: Leeds are powerless as rugby league's premier force claim their pieces of eight

WINNING the Challenge Cup is one of the rights of Wigan's spring and if the game that brought them the trophy for the eighth successive time lacked the throbbing pulse of previous triumphs there was no denying the justice of their continued ownership. Where the justice ends, however, is that this imperious reign is likely to be brought to an end not by another rugby team but a rugby revolution, if we can use such an expression to dignify the chaos the game is in.

Sadly, an occasion that the nation has known and loved for generations has breathed its last as the showpiece climax of the rugby league season. No one can tell at what stage in the calendar it will settle in future but the proud presence it has had in our sporting agenda is likely to be an early victim of the game's new existence, the details of which are now being fought out at world mogul level.

Perhaps it was the burden of that knowledge that caused the match to fail by some margin to live up to our expectations that it could soar above the seedy deals of the last few weeks. Alas, the league code's bewildered state proved too dominant a background and not even Wigan could overcome it.

They overcame Leeds, however, in a fashion that left no doubts. But they did it in fits and starts that brought many excellent moments which were all too fleeting to be knitted together to provide prolonged excitement. Wigan were often stretched by Leeds but never near to breaking point and although the Yorkshire team had ample possession they did not have the individual flair or the collective inventiveness to sustain a challenge to the Wigan defence.

What flair there was came almost entirely from Wigan but, apart from the evergreen mastery of their captain Shaun Edwards, it was not the more established stars who provided it. Martin Offiah was often involved, but rarely in the fullness of flight, and neither did Va'aiga Tuigamala do enough of the steamroller act his followers have come to expect. Tuigamala - who heard of the death of his grandfather just before the game and will today fly to the funeral - did score a hallmark try eventually, the last of Wigan's five.

The younger Wigan players more than compensated. Full-back Henry Paul showed all the skill and verve that have embroidered his first big season while man-of-the-match Jason Robinson showed why the Australians are offering more than £1m to spirit him away from Rupert Murdoch's Super League, which begins next summer.

He was denied the third try that would have given him this occasion's first hat-trick but the two he did score brought rare exhilaration to Wembley yesterday, and the fact that he scored his second with a searing 45-yard run straight through the heart of what was passing for the Leeds defence for much of the second half said much about the unevenness of the encounter.

The rugby league cup final has been never less than honestly professional in any of its aspects but the scent of money hasn't hung so heavily over the occasion before. It is confusing to list those who have been, or may be, snapped up by the rival factions. Those who have agreed not to sign for the official Australian Rugby League and remain in Britain with Murdoch's lot have been paid generous loyalty bonuses. Ironically, this does not include some of the most loyal players in the game, two of whom were heavily involved yesterday - Shaun Edwards and Garry Schofield of Leeds.

Both spoke bitterly before the game about this oversight which gave them an extra point to prove. But while Edwards proceeded to underpin Wigan's victory with a display that could persuade the meanest paymaster, Schofield's was far from a bonus performance. He made mistakes, both near the Wigan line and his own, that helped to prevent Leeds capitalising on the early lead that Holroyd's penalty provided after Skerrett and Clarke held Mercer down.

That promising beginning was wrenched from Leeds's memory by Edwards, who probed for vulnerability and found it on the Leeds left, where Wigan's best ganged up on young winger Francis Cummins, who found himself facing Offiah, Clarke and Paul as well as Robinson. It was Robinson who scored the first try, taking Offiah's pass and wresting his body out of the grasp of Cummins and accepting the generous opening Alan Tait left for him down the line.

Ten minutes later, a long pass out from Edwards again found Wigan mob- handed down the left and Paul did a familar spin out of Tait's tackle and jinked over the line. Botica missed both conversions but added a penalty just before the interval. A Cummins run at the start of the second half raised Leeds hopes but it lasted no longer than Robinson's second try five minutes later after a burst from Andy Farrell, who had an excellent second half. Farrell then set up a try for the hooker Martin Hall before Tuigamala brought Wigan's scoring to an end.

The Leeds hooker James Lowes scored a late try, converted by Holroyd, but a game historic for its context had been over as a contest for some time.

Leeds: Tait; Fallon, Iro, Innes, Cummins; Schofield, Holroyd; Howard (Mann, 34), Lowes, Faimalo (Howard,54), Mercer, Eyres (Harmon, 60), Hanley.

Wigan: Paul; Robinson, Tuigamala, Connolly, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Skerrett (Atcheson, 54, rep by Skerrett, 73), Hall, Cowie, Betts, Cassidy (Farrell, 7), Clarke.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford)