Wembley, the old Wembley at least, always had the reputation of testing the character of a player. It could make or break reputations.
Nathan Graham, the Bulls; fullback, was bombed into the ground by Saints Bobbie Goulding and never recovered his confidence in that role.
Ask Halifax’s John Pendelbury, whose heroics included the last gasp tackle that denied Mark Elia the winning try for the hot-favourite Saints. That single tackle all but put paid to Elia’s stint at St Helens, whilst Pendlebury can dine out on inspiring the 19-18 Halifax win, including the decisive drop goal, for a very long time.
Saints and Warrington centre, Derek Noonan, suffered a similar fate when he bombed a last minute game winning scoring chance against Leeds in 1978. Noonan was out the door the following year.
Nathan Graham, the Bradford Bulls; fullback, was bombed into the ground by Saints’ Bobbie Goulding in the 1996 final and never recovered his confidence in that role.
Yet the great players. Players like Goulding, Shaun Edwards of Wigan and even dear old Jonathan Davies, grew on the Wembley stage; embellishing their career legacies, whilst others shrank into shadows.
Who will take the bows after today’s clash between Huddersfield and Warrington? There are no shortage of candidates.
Giants’ fullback, Brett Hodgson, is a slight figure; reputedly 12st wet through, his ‘dry’ weight remains shrouded in mystery. Yet his indomitable performances are a key reason that Giants lie fourth in Super League and are favourites for their first Challenge Cup win since 1953. Whether it’s try-saving tackles or timely bursts into the offensive line, Hodgson is an inspirational figure for the Yorkshire outfit.
But he’s not the only candidate: Luke Robinson will be keen to press his own credentials. Since leaving Wigan the scrum half has rarely threatened to translate his potential into international class. Yet he is in increasingly prominent in managing the Giants’ game and a standout performance today will give England and Warrington coach pause for thought when compiling his Four Nations line-up.
The same can be said of some other former Wigan players withj David Hodson, Kevin Brown and Steve Wild playing their best football for years.
As for the Wolves, for too long ‘as Lee Briers went, so went the Wolves’. The problem being Briers inconsistency. Capable of inspiring performances his moods plumbed equal depths. However, the arrival of Smith has instilled a far more rigourous and disciplined approach in Briers. He may finally be ready to step onto the Wembley stage with poise. Many will feel he ought to have been here 12 years ago, when Saints cruelly denied him his place after he steered them to the final in the absence of the suspended Goulding. Redemption may not be on his mind, but it’s hovering over Wembley Stadium, rest assured.
Michael Monaghan is loved or hated – sometimes simultaneously, by the Wolves fans. He has had an up and down career with the Wolves but like Briers the arrival of Smith has seen hime knuckle down to deliver the game management an ruck play that he is capable of; game turning stuff.
But for me the stage is set for one of the unsung heroes of the Warrington game: Ben Westwood. He runs his blood to water every single game in the Wolves cause – even in the dark days – to me he epitomises the loyalty and commitment that is so often bemoaned as lacking in the modern day player. A proper old-fashioned back rower, he could yet see a red-letter day on the biggest stage of his career.