This is my Challenge Cup Final Preview, by a dedicated Eagles fan.
Pleasse feel free to e-mail me with any comments (positive and
negaticve, but not rude please, as my kids will be reading. I have never
written about Rugby League before, and fancied putting pen to paper - or
finger to keyboard !!)
Challenge Cup Final.html 10K ]
On Saturday, 2nd May, Wembley will host the most important moment in the Rugby League year - the Challenge Cup Final. This years final will prove to be a fascinating competition between the aristocrats of the game, Wigan, and one of the games relative newcomers, Sheffield Eagles. The Eagles have already been written off in most quarters as certain underdogs, with the questions being asked not being "who will win?" but "By how large a margin will Wigan win?" This article will explore some of the issues facing each team and give a brief guide to key players on both sides.
Wigan will be the obvious favourites to win this match, with many expecting *** on Wembley's wide turf of the Eagles from Sheffield. Wigan have dominated this competition in recent years, winning no less than 7 times running, before running out of steam in the last 2 years. Their early season form however, suggests a return to the glory days, whilst once again being coached by that king of coaches, John Monie.
Their performance over a woeful London Bronco's side, who failed to live up to pre-season speculation, was clinical and effective, as they neutralised the undoubted strength of the London pack. Wigan's ability to break and score from anywhere on the field coupled with the outstanding ability of many of their national and international stars make them a side to be feared.
Wigan can demonstrate strength in all positions on the field. At the back, they have an outstanding and young full-back in Kris Radlinski, who, even though a fully fledged Great Britain star, has yet to reach the pinnacle of his playing ability. He is solid in defence, particularly in fielding the high kick, the down fall of so many of Wigan's opponents. Radlinski's ability to break from defence into attack is second probably only to their dazzling winger, Jason "Billy Whizz" Robinson. Robinson's speed is now legendary, and his ability is beginning even to outshine that of his erstwhile colleague and mentor, Martin Offiah.
In the back division, Wigan boast a most experienced player in Gary Connolly, once of St. Helens. Connolly has it all - speed, strength, defence and attack. He can be devastating on attack, shrugging of powerful forwards with apparent ease. It is, however, in defensive tackling that Connolly excels. He has a rare ability to "steal the ball" with regularity in a one on one tackling situation, and will exploit any weakness of his opposite numbers in this department to the full.
In the halfbacks, Wigan have a relatively new partnership of Tony Smith and Henry Paul. Whilst Paul is struggling to recapture his form of 2 years ago, at Stand-off, his play making ability is without question. Tony Smith played for Castleford for many years, performing as a thoroughbred, without gaining the recognition that a player of his talent deserved. At Wigan, he is beginning to play to his full potential, both in making and scoring tries. He can be as slippery as Jason Robinson can when on form, and it is particularly ironic that Sheffield Eagles chased him, as a successor to Mark Aston and Darryl Powell. Smith chose Wigan, although it remains to be seen if the name of Tony Smith will be uttered in the same breath as more recent Wigan half backs of fame - Shaun Edwards, Andy Gregory and Bobby Goulding.
In the forwards, Wigan demonstrate strength, versatility and power, with a pack that can dominate any opponents. The key player now returned to Wigan from a spell "Down Under" has to be the legendary Dennis Betts. Many think that Betts was passed his sell-by date when he returned to Wigan at the start of this season, but early indications suggest a player who is rapidly regaining the peak of his ability. His second row partnership with probably Simon Haughton will create a frightening combination of speed and strength that will both intimidate and dominate all opposition.
But the last word has to be for the captain of the side, and captain of Great Britain also - the indefatigable loose forward and goal kicker - Andy Farrell. What more can be said about Farrell that has not already been said? He is a man of huge ability, a man who personifies the skills, agility and ability of Rugby League, and who is most definitely the most complete Rugby League player in this country at the moment. Farrell combines his envied skills, despite his youth, with a maturity of leadership that is evident to even the most uninitiated follower of the game. Watch out in particular, for Farrell's influence upon the Wembley turf!!
And so to the Eagles. They are perhaps the most unfavoured side to win the cup in years, but it is a huge complement to their growth and development that they have earned this right to challenge for the Cup itself, against one of the most well known sides of modern times. 15 years ago, Sheffield Eagles did not exist, and this first Wembley appearance is the culmination of the efforts made by many people over the last 14 years. Gary Hetherington, now Chief executive himself of Leeds RLFC was the founder of the club, and lead it through all its ups and downs, including near extinction, for 13 of those years. The coaching role was continued with John Kear's appointment has Head Coach last year, and the club has grown in strength again since Kear's appointment, with possibly the most combative squad in the club's short history.
The Eagles have never had to face the pressures that Wigan will exert, on such a public stage. True, it is not their first ever cup final appearance, having one appearance under their belt in the now defunct and latterly lamented Yorkshire Cup final back in 1992, losing 29-16 to a strong Wakefield Trinity side, and 2 second division Premiership Trophy wins. However, in 1994, they were to achieve one of the greatest wins in their brief history, with a 10-5 home win over Wigan.
It is poignant that the scorer of all the points in that home win against Wigan, is the same Mark Aston, whose career has been revitalised after leaving eagles for Featherstone Rovers, and returning after a season away. Aston will start at Scrum Half, with his other half-back partner being the other equally revitalised New Zealand international, Dave Watson. Dave had a spell out of the game, following a drug scandal, but is back now with the Eagles, and rapidly regaining the form that made him a feared international opponent. Aston's kicking game and his rapport with Watson will provide the opportunity for the Eagles to seriously test Wigan's defence. Aston will attack with a mixture of "high bombs", "cross field kicks" and "g*** kicks" and the Wigan full back, Radlinski, will have to be ever alert to the danger Aston will possess.
In Fijian fullback, Waisale Sovatabua, Eagles posses another player of international calibre. Sovatabua is establishing himself as a first choice team player, ousting the reliable and solid Lynton Stott. Sovatabua is also good under the high bomb, and like Radlinski, can quickly turn defence into attack.
In the centres, Sheffield are likely to have Keith Senior back after suspension for his sending off at Castleford in the quarter final, and ex-Keighley man, Nick Pinkney. Both are England internationals, and have the pace and ball handling skills to outrun many opposition players. Their combination with their wingers will be vital if eagles are to win, but they will especially need to be able to soak up the undoubted pressure that Wigan will throw at them early in the match. Their defensive qualities could well prove to be the main difference between the 2 sides, and where the game could be won and lost.
In the forwards, Sheffield have some very strong players, who can match the *** that Wigan will throw. New signing, Michael "Who's Bad" Jackson from Halifax is another international star, and he is likely to partner Australian Paul Carr in the second row. Paul Carr is an extremely pacey player, and possibly one of the few best players never to gain Australian international experience. His versatility will be an almighty asset, whether in the second row, or at loose-forward. New signing from Featherstone, Great Britain International Steve Molloy will be cup-tied, and his place is likely to be taken by Dale Laughton, another outstanding and pacey forward. However, the main man of the pack is the Eagles captain, and Great Britain international, Paul "Beans" Broadbent. Broadbent will give every ounce of effort and then more to see his side win at Wembley. He will definitely lead from the front and if will alone could win games, then Broadbent's will alone would win the match for Sheffield.
So, who will win? I have to admit, as author of this article, some personal hope now. I am a die-hard Eagles fan, after watching them for the last 11 years. Can they win at Wembley? Anything is possible in sport, and the will to win is no less great in any Eagles player than in those from Wigan. However, the class, strength, and Wembley experience of Wigan over the year's makes it seem unlikely that the match will go Sheffield's way. I expect Wigan to win by a score of 30 clear points or more. I would love to be proven to be wrong, but cannot see it happening. I predict a score of ...
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